by Jeffrey Tranzillo
What follows is an imaginary letter from Archbishop Carlo Viganò to Pope Francis. Please note that I do not believe Archbishop Viganò would ever write such a letter as this, for he strikes me as far too humble a man. I, obviously, am not.
Dear Holy Father:
It has come to my attention that Cardinal Parolin might have taken measures to locate me and to charge me with canonical crimes for having divulged pontifical and state secrets in my testimony of August 25. I am bringing this to your attention so you can let him know that, since the publication of your Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (AL), there is surely no need for him to trouble himself so.
It seems the good cardinal has forgotten about the “paradigm shift” that AL has brought about in emphasizing that the faithful (of whose number I strive to be) “are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations” (AL, 37). Needless to say, the current crisis in the Church of homosexual clerical abuse and networking is extremely complex. In consequence, I have had to discern quite carefully what contribution God might be calling me to make to help address it. My testimony is the fruit of that discernment. If you would, then, please remind Cardinal Parolin that he “needs to make room for the consciences of the faithful,” hard though that might be for him (ibid.).
You might further point out to him that the rule regarding the observance of pontifical secrecy is hardly sacrosanct. You yourself have seen fit to invoke the authority of no less a theological giant than St. Thomas Aquinas, to demonstrate that “general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations” (AL, 304). To illustrate your point, in direct contradiction to Thomas’s own teaching, you applied this principle to the Sixth Commandment (though not to the Fifth, so that, using a logic that escapes me, you could proscribe the death penalty absolutely). In effect, this means that Church pastors can now encourage some “situations” of Catholic adultery to go on virtually indefinitely, under the guise of “marriage.” Likewise, you applied this principle to the traditional proscription, grounded in divine law, against permitting Catholics persisting in objectively grave sin to receive Holy Communion. As a result, they can now receive the Most Blessed Sacrament, in certain instances.
It follows, then, that Thomas’s principle must apply a fortiori to the merely human precept obligating me to maintain pontifical secrecy. Indeed, the general rule of pontifical secrecy has been being misused for too long to institute a “culture” of sexual perversion, lawlessness, self-indulgence, and personal gain within the divine institution of the Holy Catholic Church, so as to satisfy the unbridled lusts of an “elite” class of clerics. By that very fact, the general rule is inapplicable–null and void–relative to this particular situation.
Even if we were to put all that aside, I can tell you that I was having “great difficulty in understanding” the “inherent values” of the secrecy rule under the circumstances, which created a concrete situation that did not allow me “to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin” (AL, 301). That is why I said in my testimony, “Now that the corruption [of clerical sexual abuse, and of clerical silence about it] has reached to the very top of the Church’s hierarchy, my conscience dictates that I reveal those truths regarding the heartbreaking case of the Archbishop Emeritus of Washington, D.C., Theodore McCarrick.”
Needless to say, Holy Father, my conscience could not but recognize that this situation of ecclesiastical corruption “does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel” (AL, 303). In addition, I recognized, in conscience, that my shedding light on the situation was “the most generous response” that I could give to God, even if it meant breaching my oath of pontifical secrecy. For there was simply no way I could possibly have anticipated, at the time I took the oath, the rise of a situation so grave, so incomprehensibly villainous, that I would experience in conscience “a certain moral security” that committing such a breach was what God himself was asking of me, “amid the concrete complexity of [my] limits” (ibid.).
I know, of course, that you understand all this, Holy Father, as you are the one who promulgated Amoris Laetitia. In doing so, you have, in effect, long since exonerated me with respect to my present situation. For that, I owe you a debt of gratitude. I have rehearsed herein certain aspects of the document only that you might recall them more easily, as you persuade Cardinal Parolin to call off his dogs, and to start attending to real matters of state.
But even if you succeed in that regard, I will still be compelled to remain in hiding until you totally obliterate from the Church the presence of the vengeful, unscrupulous, and murderous lavender mafia, which is furious with me for having partially exposed it in a very public way. You could perhaps redeem yourself somewhat by doing at least that much, since you have refused, so far, to resign for your part in solidifying the stranglehold that this evil and merciless network of self-serving degenerates has on the Church. Short of your resignation, I am counting on your timely and decisive intervention to win the day, so that I can emerge safely from hiding in the storage closet of Cardinal Wuerl’s multi-million-dollar penthouse on Embassy Row in Washington, D.C.–the very last place that anyone would ever think to look for me. It’s getting rather crowded–and spooky–for me, hiding in here surrounded by all these skeletons hidden in here along with me.
With filial affection,
Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò
by Jeff Tranzillo
On August 28, LifeSite News published an article citing Bishop Robert Morlino’s “disappointment that in his remarks on the return flight from Dublin to Rome, the Holy Father chose a course of ‘no comment,’ regarding any conclusions that might be drawn from Archbishop Viganò’s allegations,” three days earlier, concerning the gay network and the gay cover-up at the highest levels of the Church. With all due respect to this courageous bishop, I believe that Pope Francis might, indeed, have commented on the allegations–loudly–giving faithful Catholics an even bigger reason for disappointment.
As LifeSite News also reported, again, on August 28, the pope named pro-gay Cardinal Joseph Tobin, who heads the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, as a delegate to the upcoming synod in Rome on youth. The synod’s instrumentum laboris speaks of “LGBT youth” who want to form homosexual relationships, while still remaining close to the Church. In consequence–and even well before the instrumentum was published–faithful Catholics have been bracing themselves for the commandeering of the youth synod by gay-friendly clerics, who, by recourse to Amoris Laetitia’s unprincipled principles, will use the synod as an opportunity to push the Church toward changing her teaching on sexual morality in general, and on homosexuality in particular. Tobin’s formidable size and intimidating scowl are naturally suited to quelling the opposition. Archbishop Viganò’s testimony states that Tobin owes his present appointment as Newark’s ordinary, in large part, to his predecessor, disgraced ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure out why McCarrick would have been so keen to have him in that position.
It seems, then, that the pope’s handpicking Tobin as a delegate to the youth synod might itself have been his in-your-face response to Viganò’s allegations. Not only will Francis not confront the gay free-for-all in the Church by disciplining or dismissing gay and gay-promoting clerics: he will foster it. He will see to it that clerics of just this type are in place to exploit every opportunity to promote the gay cause, as they did at the synods on the family held in 2014 and 2015, and as they also did, with devilish subtlety, in Amoris Laetitia, the rotten fruit of those two synods. The youth synod provides one more such opportunity. The whole concept of this synod seems to have been contrived, and its preparatory phase manipulated, for the express purpose of corrupting youth; and, through corrupted youth, Church teaching as well.
Francis and his pack of wolves will therefore continue laying the primary blame for clerical sexual abuse at the feet of clericalism, while denying its homosexual root. In that way, they can move ahead with their agenda to “welcome” and to “integrate” active homosexuals into the Church. They are thus inviting the very element responsible for most cases of clerical sexual abuse to spread throughout the Body of Christ. In consequence, everyone–especially the innocent and the vulnerable–will be in greater danger of exploitation and corruption by the swelling presence of unrepentant sexual perverts, who have little aptitude for, or interest in, self-control and moral decency.
This evil and subversive scheme cannot be reconciled with a serious intention on the part of the pope or like-minded bishops to address the problem of clerical sexual abuse in the Church. We can only conclude, then, that they are not serious about addressing it. They will therefore continue to stock the seminaries with sexually perverted or psychosexually abnormal males who have little chance of, or incentive for, integrating their sexuality manfully into their person, so as to live an unfailingly chaste, celibate, and priestly life by God’s grace, in accordance with God’s loving plan for His Church. The pope will be content, it seems, merely to issue apologies occasionally, as he did last week in Ireland, for the devastating personal wreckage caused by clerical sexual abuse.
Is the preceding assessment unfair? Is the new role assigned to Tobin, the timing of its announcement, and all that the appointment implies really the pope’s defiant response to the Viganò allegations?
At present, we cannot say for sure; nevertheless, some things are luminously clear. Pope Francis has consistently appointed and surrounded himself with gay-friendly bishops and priests, at least some of whom we can be forgiven for suspecting are gay–that is, sodomitic–themselves. Archbishop Viganò has named some of the relevant names in his testimony. Two others, Cardinals Godfried Danneels and Walter Kasper, were members of the St. Gallen mafia, which succeeded in getting Bergoglio elected to the papacy. As stated above, these wolves, together with the rest of the pack, are promoting the gay agenda under Francis with impunity–humanly speaking, of course.
What is more, the pope seems more inclined to reward bishops who cover up sexual abuse than to discipline them. One striking example is his 2015 appointment of Bishop Juan Barros Madrid to the diocese of Osorno, Chile. Francis wholly disregarded loud and sustained protests that Barros had covered up–indeed, witnessed–the sexual abuse crimes of his friend and mentor, Father Fernando Karadima, whom the Holy See disciplined in 2011. Francis seems, in that case, to have heeded instead the counsel of his friend and C9 member, Cardinal Javier Errázuriz Ossa, who is himself implicated in the same cover-up. The pope was finally forced to accept Barros’s resignation last June, after an investigation by Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Msgr. Jordi Bertomeu verified the credibility of the victims’ claims.
We have also the example of the pope’s rehabilitating Cardinals Godfried Danneels and Roger Mahoney, both of whom are long known to have covered up for clerical sexual abusers. And in view of Archbishop Viganò’s testimony, it now seems that the pope had also rehabilitated ex-Cardinal McCarrick, who has bragged about his prominent role in lobbying for Bergoglio’s election to the papacy. Was his restoration to the world stage the pope’s reward to him for a job well done?
Joseph Tobin, who, according to Viganò, acquired his present office with McCarrick’s help, is himself implicated in having covered up for the disgraced ex-cardinal. It was only when the Archdiocese of New York revealed in June that a credible charge of pederasty had been brought against McCarrick that Tobin, by then at Newark’s helm for well over a year, acknowledged the existence of a settlement between the Newark archdiocese and a former seminarian whom McCarrick had sexually abused. Nevertheless, Tobin’s cover-up has clearly not discouraged Pope Francis from naming him as a delegate to October’s youth synod. On the contrary, the cardinal’s steadfast allegiance to the gay cause seems to be what qualified him to serve in that capacity.
Within a few months after having taken over the Archdiocese of Newark in January 2017, Tobin gave his approval for a gay pilgrimage, including Mass, to take place in the cathedral. The event materialized on May 21 of that year. Though he could not stay for the entire event, Tobin was on hand to introduce himself to the group of openly gay and lesbian pilgrims, announcing, “I am Joseph, your brother.” He then qualified that declaration in terms of his being, like each of them, “a disciple of Jesus” and “a sinner who finds mercy in the Lord”; however, one is still hard pressed not to take his remark as possibly intended to signal something more. At the very least, he was grossly imprudent not to have considered how loaded it was, under the circumstances.
While Tobin has enthusiastically defended Amoris Laetitia, which lurked in the background as providing him with the rationale for “welcoming,” to the cathedral, people who identify openly as gay or lesbian, he went beyond even the most radical interpretations of the document. Disregarding its prerequisites of “accompaniment” and “discernment,” he allowed the “pilgrims,” some of whom were “married” to same-sex “spouses,” to be welcomed unconditionally to receive Holy Communion.
Rather than encourage the pilgrims to live chastely, Tobin thought it appropriate, on this occasion, simply to “call them who they were.” This is particularly significant relative to the upcoming youth synod that the pope wants him to attend. For it suggests that he will “affirm” the youth in the L, G, B, T, or other “identity” that they claim for themselves. If he does, in fact, indulge and encourage that death-dealing lie among the youth at the synod, then he will be guilty of causing scandal by tempting young people to sin, or to remain in sin. He will also be guilty of inflicting serious, psychological abuse on vulnerable youth.
As Tobin sees it, however, the real problem is the fear young people have that the Church “judges them.” His twisted approach to the “same-sex” issue seems to coincide with the subversive plan of the late Cardinal Carlo Martini, a member of the St. Gallen mafia, who wanted to exploit youth as the revolutionary means by which to advance the homosexual agenda in the Church. Tobin and Francis seem to be of one mind in their determination to fulfill Martini’s infernal plan.
We might add other evidence of Pope Francis’s favor toward gay and gay-minded clerics, and of the virtually free reign he gives them to promote, celebrate, and travel the gay path to perdition. But we will stop here to ask the following question: How does all this square with the pope’s remark, during an audience with Italian bishops last May, that it would be better for them not to admit active homosexuals or males having deep-seated homosexual tendencies into the seminary? His bizarre self-contradiction here, as in so many other instances, is not easily explained.
It is telling, however, that Francis did not deliver his remark during the televised part of his audience, but only during his closed-door meeting with the bishops afterward. Why did he not make his point publicly and direct it, not just to the group of Italian bishops before him, but also to all the bishops of the universal Church, for whom his message–which coincides with Church teaching–is just as urgent? After all, that message, if taken seriously, is crucial to addressing the crisis of clerical sexual abuse.
Significantly, the pope’s remark came just four days after the whole body of Chilean bishops handed him their resignations in the wake of Bishop Scicluna’s twenty-three-hundred-page report on the sexual abuse crisis in Chile. Did his words to the Italian bishops constitute a heartfelt, perhaps spontaneous personal plea for due discretion in choosing future seminarians, now that the nature and scope of the problem of homosexual clergy has finally penetrated his awareness?
If so, the pope’s appointing Joseph Tobin to attend the youth synod seems inexplicable. But let us explore one of several possibilities.
In 2005, and again in 2013, the St. Gallen mafia conspired to get none other than Cardinal Bergoglio elected to the papacy. Its members must consequently have known him personally, or at least known a whole lot about him. Indeed, “mafia” members Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor and Carlo Martini were his friends and enthusiastic promoters. Bergoglio evidently measured up as being on the same page with the group, particularly with Martini, whose vision of the Church manifestly informs his own. What does that imply?
Of the clerics that we know to have belonged to the Gallen cabal, several, Martini among them, are famous for their radical opposition to Church teachings and practices–especially in the area of sexual morality. If Bergoglio “measured up” to them, then that would suggest he is cut from the same cloth. The “mafia” would then be able to count on him to “modernize” the Church in such a way as to serve their foul, revolutionary objectives.
Conscious, willful rejection of the Church’s teachings invariably entails grave, practical consequences for the person who rejects them–the Catholic above all. It follows that the Gallen gang and their papal candidate–who, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, was known for his ambiguity, his doctrinal and moral apathy, his protection of clerical sexual abusers, his morally suspect clerical retinue, and his “pastoral” bypassing of Church disciplinary practices–must have all seriously compromised themselves, whether in their personal life, or in carrying out their priestly ministry. In a word, they must all have been unfaithful to Christ and His Body. This would have given rise to four types of “loyalty” among them in their ecclesiastical collaboration:
1. a utilitarian loyalty, where birds of a feather conspire together to achieve one or another of their corrupt goals.
2. a pseudo-solidarity loyalty, where birds of a feather live it up together, doing favors for, and covering for, one another.
3. a guilty-conscience loyalty, where none of these birds is inclined to denounce or expose the misdeeds of any of the others, since he knows he’s guilty of the same transgressions himself, or of others just as serious. In consequence, they can each get away with murder.
4. a constrained loyalty, where these birds of a feather, who will either sink or swim together, are compelled–despite their differences–to act together. Each of them knows that he can get away with murder, and that the others have no choice but to help him pull the trigger.
Any of these types of “loyalty,” or any combination thereof, could explain why the pope has gone out of his way to conceal the disgraceful actions and cover-ups perpetrated by certain clerics. It could explain why he seems so often to reward vice rather than virtue. It could explain why he consistently fails to identify and to denounce genuinely grave sins according to what they really are. And it could explain why he continues promoting the gay agenda, even though he seems to have expressed a personal concern–albeit privately–about the problems that can arise when active homosexuals and homosexually inclined individuals are admitted to the seminary, and then later ordained as priests. While self-contradiction and concealing his hand are his signature trademarks, and we cannot discount the possibility that the pope’s brief, private comment to the Italian bishops was just one more of his red herrings, the comment seems, nevertheless, too gratuitous not to have some merit. Was he not at liberty, then, to utter it publicly?
In view of the above, it is not unreasonable for us to consider that Pope Francis might be seriously compromised. His being in a compromised position would determine everything he says and does–or can say and do–as pope. To take a recent example: On his flight home from Ireland last Sunday, the pope spoke in an interview about the possibility of psychiatry helping children who manifest homosexual tendencies. Sometime after the statement appeared on its official website, the Vatican deleted the reference to psychiatry. Someone behind the scenes evidently decided that it didn’t fit in with the gay-is-normal narrative issuing from the highest levels. The pope had not requested the change himself, for the Vatican spokeswoman who sought to justify the deletion indicated that someone else had divined what the pope really thought about the matter, and then altered the text accordingly. So, Francis was not consulted at all. Had he previously given the powers that be carte blanche to edit him unilaterally? Or, did they simply know that he would have no choice but to acquiesce, even if someone had bothered to consult him? After all, birds of this feather are bound to remain dirty together.
Let me now summarize what I have argued herein. To begin with, Pope Francis’s verbal silence about Archbishop Viganò’s allegations of a homosexual cabal in the Church, and in the Vatican itself, might not have been his “last word” on the matter. Within days, the pope seems to have responded in a practical way by shining the spotlight on Joseph Tobin, the “gay-is-good” cardinal, whom he named as a delegate to the upcoming youth synod. If the appointment was more than just an ill-timed coincidence, such that Francis really did intend, by his action, to make a statement, he would be saying something like this: Allegations or no allegations, it’s business as usual at the Vatican. The gay subversion of souls and of the Church will continue.
But the question is, was this the pope’s own strategy, or, if another’s, was he fully in accord with it? Did he act unilaterally to signal his defiance of Viganò’s allegations, or did the power players surrounding him script this drama—as well as his recent statement ascribing the cause of the clerical homosexual scandal to “clericalism”—and hand him the part he had to play, regardless of whether he was fully committed to it?
Since the time he reviewed the Scicluna report, it is possible that Pope Francis has become uncomfortable ignoring (as he allegedly did in his former diocese) the fact that the problem of clerical sexual abuse is mainly a homosexual one; however, it is crucial to the success of the gay agenda to suppress that damning fact. How, then, might the pope’s retinue keep him in check, if he is no longer of a mind to deny the pederastic nature of the current Church crisis, but would rather seek to address it?
While his Vatican handlers had no choice but to let him act in the high profile Barros and McCarrick cases, they might nevertheless have reminded Francis of the obvious: he cannot very well adopt a general policy of investigating, exposing, and dismissing from office, bishops guilty of covering up for pederastic priests. For he himself has just been accused of covering up for McCarrick. If the accusation is true–and his inner circle surely knows whether it’s true–then he would be condemning himself to the same fate. With the sword of Damocles thus set in place, the pope’s merry little band of prima donnas can go on prancing along to pursue the gay subversion of the Church, while prevailing on him to cooperate with them.
Of course, the immensely evil schemes that wicked ecclesiastical leaders are systematically carrying out in the Church, and the hidden culture of evil by which they secure the cooperation they need to accomplish their designs, surely run deeper than anyone can know before the time when God Himself reveals all that is now concealed in darkness. That the evildoers do not fear that day, or Him who has the power to cast both body and soul into hell, is a testimony to their spiritual blindness and unbelief.
The simple sketch given above provides, perhaps, a small part of the big picture–a possible scenario. There are other possible ways to explain Pope Francis’s inconsistent, self-contradictory, manipulative, and rebellious behavior; for example, the habitual equivocation, perhaps even duplicity, that seems to govern and disguise that behavior might bespeak some form of psychological and emotional instability (indeed, a remarkably Luther-like form). If that is the case, then only God knows whether the pope is blameless for his condition, or whether he brought it on and exacerbated it by his own sins.
But whether the factors affecting his conduct are internal or external or a combination of these, the end result is the same: Pope Francis does not seem fully at liberty to act consistently for the true good of the Church. Nevertheless, if, out of pure self-interest, he is capitulating mainly to pressure from the outside not to act as he knows he ought to; or, if he has committed himself to collaborating with an evil agenda to accommodate the Church to an ungodly world: then he is abusing his own freedom. He is compromised, dirty. He and his retinue.
by Jeff Tranzillo
Because of space limitations, I could not offer any more than the seven lessons that I presented in my article for Crisis Magazine on the McCarrick case. So here I will add one more lesson of great importance, especially for those who think there is nothing they can do in the face of the unspeakable evil of clerical sexual abuse. The eighth lesson is that there is something that every Catholic can do—something absolutely essential to ridding the Church of so great an evil.
Whatever the merits of the various proposals being put forward to address the problem of clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, every such proposal will necessarily prove limited in its actual implementation–though the most viable plans must, indeed, be swiftly implemented. But we must keep in mind that the homosexual problem underlying most cases of clerical abuse is, first and foremost, a spiritual problem; therefore, it cannot be resolved by merely practical, human means, however reasonable and promising they might be. We are dealing not just with corrupt, morally bankrupt clerics–with flesh and blood–but also with the evil spiritual hosts ruling this present darkness (see Eph 6:12), that is, with the fallen angels, with whom the false shepherds have complied, or even actively connived .
We are therefore facing a battle of enormous proportions–but one for which Our Lord has amply equipped us (see, for example, Eph 6:13-18). The enemies within, outside, and invisible to the Church recognize that her defenses are down, and they will try to go in for the kill. But by God’s superabundant grace, we, the little people in the pew, can foil them until Christ comes again to defeat them definitively (short of the conversion of His human foes). Rather than becoming discouraged, then, we must become more resolute than ever about following Christ faithfully, precisely in and through His Church.
Wicked clerics have been, and still are, trying to prostitute Christ’s Bride to the dark ways of the world at the behest of the father of lies, the murderer from the beginning, whom they have evidently chosen as their father. But we must fight against their lies and their murderous treatment of the souls entrusted to them, by our unwavering fidelity, in thought, word, and deed, to God’s life-giving truth. By being truly and uncompromisingly faithful, we can, among other things, provide a compelling witness and an effective outreach to the poor victims who have been so horribly wronged by homosexual and pedophiliac clergy, helping thereby to restore their trust in God’s love and care for them, precisely through the ministry of the Church. We can show them what it really means to live by the power and love of God, and thus help them understand that this way of life is precisely what their assailants, and the clerical enablers assisting them, refused to take on. Instead, the evildoers became “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God,” and callous, giving “themselves up to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of uncleanness” (Eph 4:18-19).
We can expect to suffer greatly for our faithful witness to the power of God’s grace, truth, and love. As the vast extent of clerical evil becomes more fully known, we, as Catholics, will be vilified and perhaps even persecuted by society at large, both because of society’s unjustly associating us with the monstrous deeds perpetrated by the false shepherds among us, and because we dare to affirm the homosexual nature of the vast majority of those deeds. This affirmation won’t go over too well with the false shepherds either, as they are intent on denying its truth, in their idolatrous homage to a world hell-bent on sexual degeneracy. By our witnessing to the truth, we’ll be making them look bad and exposing their lies. We’ll be threatening the evil empire that they and their predecessors have built for themselves within Christ’s Church. We should not be surprised at how low they will stoop to try and repel that threat–for example, by calling the good Catholic standing of the faithful into question and threatening them with canonical penalties.
But through the suffering that steadfast witness to the truth will bring down on God’s faithful, they will become conformed more fully to Christ the Lord, who suffers with them and in them. At the same time, they will thereby enter a real solidarity with the poor victims of clerical abuse, who have themselves suffered so terribly, and in whom Christ has suffered, both with them, and as the ultimate object of the abuse. Had the abusers themselves ever been abused? That will surely prove true in some cases, perhaps very many. But that neither excuses nor diminishes the heinous nature of their sin.
Let’s be more specific about what we can do to address the catastrophic situation in the Church. We can all confront the foul and ugly impurity of active homosexuality, both within the Church and beyond, with the beauty of a luminously pure life, born of sanctifying grace and steadfast fidelity to truth and moral goodness. Nothing sends the devil packing like purity and sanctity, truth and goodness. That is why he tries so furiously to destroy these. But we must not be distracted from growing thus. This requires us to be counter cultural, to reject the ways of the world, lest we show ourselves to be ashamed of Christ. The current crisis in the Church makes it unequivocally clear that the true children of God cannot make friends with the world, contrary to the false doctrine of “dialogue” spewed out so mellifluously by many of the Church’s blind, clerical guides. The world has nothing to teach the Church–except how to forsake Christ and forfeit heaven.
How, then, do we proceed heavenward? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Daily examination of conscience and regular confession of sins (at least once a month) in the sacrament of penance, with the firm resolve to live according to the Spirit of God. Faithful observance of the Ten Commandments is a good place to begin fostering that new life. (For the protection of the faithful–including the faithful members of the clergy–it is probably best, in these evil times, to confess anonymously and behind the screen.)
2. Attend Holy Mass and receive Holy Communion as often as possible (without prejudice to Canon 917).
3. Take up the devotions that heaven has asked for, and even prescribed; for example: daily recitation of the holy rosary; devotion, and acts of reparation, to the Sacred Heart of Jesus; the five First Saturdays of reparation to the Immaculate Heart of Mary; the divine mercy chaplet. And let us not forget to invoke the intercession of St. Joseph, terror of demons, and St. Michael the Archangel, Captain of the heavenly host.
4. Renounce sinful fashion trends. Dress modestly.
5. Keep guard over the senses. Catholics, like so many others, are daily imbibing deadly doses of impurity through unsavory news items, TV and radio shows, movies, internet sites, decadent music, salacious ads, pornography, and so on. Such things are mortal enemies of sanctity, and hence a constant detriment to souls. Renounce them. Consider joining the Angelic Warfare Confraternity to help win the battle for purity.
6. Spend time with God by meditating on the Scriptures, using a good, Catholic edition of the Bible, with commentary. Read about the lives of the Saints, and study the Church’s perennial teaching, using reliable, Catholic sources.
7. Penance, Penance, Penance. When some people don’t fulfill their responsibilities, other people have to pick up the slack. In one way or another, responsibilities must be fulfilled, so that the damage caused by those who shirk them can be repaired. For example, if some people litter, other people have to pick up after them. For if no one takes on that responsibility, the problem will just keep getting worse, and everyone will suffer for it in the end.
Likewise, by serious, voluntary acts of penance (beginning with fasting), we must spiritually make reparation, both for our own sins and for the grievous sins of those who have renounced their moral, spiritual, and ecclesiastical responsibilities. Eucharistic adoration–particularly holy hours–for love of Jesus is an indispensable way of repairing the neglect, the ingratitude, and the sacrileges to which Our Lord is subjected day and night.
Both the Church and the world are in such a deep, moral abyss that our condition is beyond merely human remedy. And so with great love born of sanctifying grace, we must make heroic (even if ultimately meager) sacrifices in a humble spirit of reparation, uniting them to the all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ, from whom they derive their value, and for whom all things regarding human salvation are possible, if we but cooperate with His gracious help and inspiration.
by Jeff Tranzillo
Repeating a claim he has made on other occasions, U.S. Cardinal Kevin Farrell asserted recently that priests “have no credibility” in preparing couples for marriage, because they lack the personal experience of married life. Farrell, who is prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastory for Laity, Family, and Life, maintains that married lay people are better suited to the task of marriage prep. One must wonder whether he would also entrust that task to divorced and “remarried” Catholics, since he favors including them “in all the ministries of the church” (italics added). In any case, several authors have incisively refuted his claim.
I would add that Farrell’s claim could just as well find its way into the looming Church debate about whether there is need to admit married men (and women?) to the priesthood. We even have a hint along those lines in Amoris Laetitia (AL), which Farrell champions with blind enthusiasm. In part, the document says that “ordained ministers often lack the training needed to deal with the complex problems currently facing families. The experience of the broad oriental tradition of a married clergy could [along with a more adequate formation] also be drawn upon” (AL, 202; italics added).
While Pope Francis states that trained lay leaders, with the help of competent professionals, can assist in ministering to families and engaged couples, he also observes that this does not diminish, but rather complements, “the fundamental value of spiritual direction, the rich spiritual treasures of the Church, and sacramental Reconciliation” (AL, 204). Farrell, on the other hand, seems to discount that value entirely, choosing instead to belittle the indispensable role of faithful, celibate priests in shepherding engaged couples (and, by extension, families and others) by means of such gifts. In his view, priests have only book knowledge, not life knowledge, or practical experience.
“Experience” in Modernism and Liberation Theology
In this article, however, let us focus on the tired, yet pernicious argument from “experience” that Farrell employs. It seems to flow from Modernistic presuppositions, which are enjoying a vigorous resurgence under the present pontificate. Modernism exalts personal experience–religious experience, in particular–to such a degree that each individual’s inner religious sense, or “faith” (the coming-to-consciousness of natural, subconscious religious impulses), becomes the locus of truth. It becomes the “revelation” about who God is and how He wants us to live. Modernists regard Church “dogmas” as merely symbolic formulas reflecting the effort of the Christian mind to clarify the meaning of the inner religious experiences common to all people, but which different religions express variously.
Christians take as the inspiration for their common mode of religious expression Christ’s way of expressing the consciousness He had of His own, uniquely profound religious experience. While the Church’s magisterium eventually sanctions some of these expressions by declaring them dogmas, these, like man himself, are historically conditioned, hence mutable. They must therefore “evolve” over time to express the “truth” of religious experience as it presents itself to man’s consciousness in his contemporary situation. Clearly, then, there can be no such thing as eternal truth.
Accordingly, when we are puzzled and appalled these days by various hierarchical and lay efforts to introduce novelty and moral perversity into traditional Church teaching and practice, we are told that the Holy Spirit is doing something new within our rapidly changing historical, cultural, and social situation. Were that so, however, there would have been no point in God’s intervening in Israel’s history, and then entering that history personally in Christ, so as to reveal to the world–in a supernatural, public, definitive, and infallible way–unchanging theological and moral truths, for the sake of human salvation.
Since Modernism denies reason’s ability to ascend beyond one’s own experience (or “concrete situation,” as AL likes to put it), it is impossible for the Modernist to affirm seriously the existence of eternally valid theological truths, or of moral truths that are absolutely binding on everyone, in every time, place, and circumstance. Modernists can therefore never get beyond the question, “Who am I to judge?” (judge though they do), for Modernism reduces everything that someone believes or does to a personal experience that everyone else must regard as equally valid to his own. There is no room for argument here, for no one has direct access to the personal, inner experience of another.
Accordingly, we should not be surprised to read, in AL, statements such as the following: “Everyone has something to contribute, because they have their life experiences. . . . We ought to be able to acknowledge the other person’s truth” (AL, 138; italics added). “Since adolescents usually have issues with authority and rules, it is best to encourage their own experience of faith” (AL, 288; italics added). Unqualified, subjectivistic statements like these, while perhaps well-meaning in their context, are nevertheless telling, and hardly benign. They are consistent with AL’s reduction of rational and revealed moral truth to a mere “ideal,” from which God, as you or I happen to experience (or “discern”) Him in conscience, might dispense us (e.g., AL, 303).
This relativizing of moral truth entails, necessarily, an “evolving,” Modernistic understanding of revealed, theological truth. For, to relativize God’s absolute moral law, God Himself must be reduced to what I conceive, want, need, and correspondingly experience Him to be. Conveniently enough, this allows me to perceive inwardly that He permits exceptions, at least in my case, to the exceptionless moral laws that He has established in accordance with the exigencies of human nature, and that He has revealed to us objectively, in human history, as indispensable for our temporal and eternal good. This accommodating, tolerant, and self-contradictory “god” is nothing other than a reflection of my own hubristic ego, leading inevitably to atheism and self-deification.
Given the abiding sympathy of Pope Francis and some of his bishops for “liberation theology,” it is worth noting further that various theologies of liberation likewise reduce truth to an experience: truth is that which reveals itself to me in my violent, revolutionary opposition to my “oppressors.” Exactly what is the truth that I perceive through my revolutionary praxis–that is, my practical experience of violently overthrowing my oppressors? It is the (Marxist) truth that class struggle is the law of history, including the Church’s history. Any other “truth” proposed, particularly by the “oppressors,” must be regarded with suspicion and rejected, as it reflects only their class interests. Such theologies of liberation–really theologies of resentment–rule out all dialogue, conciliatory initiatives, and objective truth, thus precluding true peace, justice, and freedom.
Like Modernism, liberationist ideologies deny the existence of any truth that transcends the historically situated subject. Truth is, rather, a reality immanent in human experience. Even one’s understanding of Christ Himself, and of the Kingdom He proclaimed, is said to arise out of that experience. Unlike Modernism, however, which refrains from acknowledging its absolute principle that there are no absolute truths, theologies of liberation affirm that there is, indeed, an absolute law: the immoral absolute of violent class struggle, unrestrained by any ethical principles.
Discovering the Truth in Experience through Intellectual Judgment
The reader will perhaps have detected some grains of truth in the Modernist and liberationist understandings of truth and experience, albeit perverted. In particular, it is true that we do learn from experience. Indeed, we know from experience that experience–our consciousness of ourselves and the world through the body–can teach us something.
But raw experience, the mere awareness that I am experiencing something, wouldn’t teach me anything, even if there were such a thing on the human level. It would just be something that happens to me, something that I undergo or endure passively, and react to reflexively. While I might experience intense feelings that could, in turn, give rise to strong convictions about the “truth” of what I’m experiencing, such experiences could never take me beyond the sensual or the psychoemotive level–the merely reactive level. I could therefore be easily deceived about the meaning and purpose of what’s happening to or in me.
If experience is going to teach us anything, it must be properly interpreted. And that requires an intellectual moment that coincides with our consciousness of the experience itself. The intellectual moment inherent in experience leads, in turn, to intellectual reflection on the experience. Experience, then, contains a surplus of meaning that must be intellectually extracted. That meaning has an objective content that relates the person to a truth beyond himself.
Let’s say, for example, that I accidentally left some hard-boiled eggs out of the fridge overnight. The following day, I judge that they’re edible, so I eat a couple. Several hours later, I’m suddenly seized by a sharp, abdominal pain, accompanied by severe nausea. Spontaneously, I wonder, “Hey, what’s wrong? Why is this happening to me?” An involuntary emotional reaction follows: “Oh no! I’m in the throes of death!” Given my present state of discomfort, my feelings and emotions are somewhat persuasive, but hardly realistic. Rather, they are subjective, transitory, and irrational. As such, they are unreliable and unequipped for getting at the objective truth of the matter. Unreflective in themselves, they have caused me to overreact.
On the other hand, my initial response also contains an immediate, intellectual moment: I have judged rightly that something is wrong with me, and that there must be some reasonable explanation why. I don’t know what the cause of the problem is yet, but I do understand, without having to reflect, that a definite cause and effect relation is at work.
In order to determine the precise cause of the effect, a more reflective intellectual effort is necessary. So I begin to think of reasonable possibilities: “Food poisoning, or appendicitis, or the new medicine I’m taking could be causing these symptoms.” But I cannot definitely determine the exact cause on my own. So, my experience compels me to make a practical judgment: I must go to the emergency room, for I have a moral obligation to take care of myself. My emotional energy, now under my rational control, lends force to that decision and urges me to follow through.
If I am true to my nature as an intellectual creature, I will want to get at the real truth of the matter–not just for love of truth as such, but for my own bodily, moral, and spiritual good. I must also properly manage my irrational reactions by the proper exercise of my intellect and will, so that feelings and emotions do not overwhelm or skew my rationality, and hence my objectivity, which rightly points me, in this case, toward the emergency room.
If we were to follow Cardinal Farrell’s lead, there would be no point in my seeking medical help from any doctor who has not had the same experience of severe abdominal pain and nausea that I am having. What could he really know about my condition and what I’m going through? He has never had to deal with it himself! How could he possibly help me if he can’t relate to my situation? I have a “credibility” that he doesn’t have.
Such a conclusion bespeaks a self-centered, self-justifying, and impersonal anthropology. It has no appreciation for distinctively human and personal traits such as empathy and compassion, which presuppose a certain understanding of what another person is experiencing, based on one’s own vicarious or analogous, if not identical, experiences. Such traits allow us to identify with, and to share indirectly in, the experiences of others, and to integrate such secondary experiences critically into our own store of experience-based knowledge. Indeed, there would be no such thing as human wisdom traditions if we did not have the ability to ascertain intellectually, and to assess critically, the meaning contained in our own experiences and those of others.
That being so, a caring and conscientious doctor would have no difficulty relating to me and managing my care, any more than Jesus had difficulty relating to and healing the paralytic, even if neither physician had, at the time of intervention, the “credibility” of having personally experienced the particular affliction cured. More to the point, Jesus did not experience marriage personally as man, though He is the Author of marriage as God. Nevertheless, our eternal High Priest was able to express His infallible knowledge of the institution in human terms, yet still infallibly, so that we could know and live by the eternal truth of its essential meaning, structure, and purpose, and thereby fulfill God’s creative and redemptive plan.
Since Christ commissioned His Apostles–and, by extension, their successors–to teach His flock, and all the world, what He had taught them, it is clear that bishops and priests are the ones who have the primary responsibility for disseminating the full truth about marriage. And if the celibate priests of the Latin rite are faithful to their vocation, they will have no problem doing so, since their unique spousal relation to Christ in the Spirit, along with the concrete responsibilities it entails, is not only analogous to married life, but is also the premier sign of the eschatological goal toward which that life is directed.
Clearly, then, Catholic priests are not free to abdicate from their primary role in marriage preparation, and in attending to the catechetical and pastoral needs of married couples and families. Indeed, their objectivity makes them especially suited to the task, just as Jesus and His mother, precisely because sinless, understood and grieved about the gravity of our condition far more than we who are mired in sin. This is not to deny the complementary role that faithful Catholic couples can play in marriage prep and family ministry. But it remains true that the “outsider” can sometimes see things more clearly than the “insider”–than the one immersed in the experience–who can be overwhelmed by feelings, emotions, attachments, psychological stress, and so on, even if not mired in sin and blinded by it.
The Modernistic Implications of Farrell’s Argument from Experience
It follows from Modernism and the liberationist theologies of resentment mentioned earlier that if others do not have the same experiences that we do, then they cannot possibly identify with our experiences or with us. This means that we are nothing more than products of our experiences. In consequence, others cannot appreciate our “truth,” or know “what it’s like” for us. This effectively cuts off communication, facilitating both the demonization of others who are not of one’s own “class,” and the fabrication of self-justifying rationalizations for one’s immoral behavior, no matter how egregious.
Since they can’t identify with our experience, they haven’t the credibility to make moral judgments about our decision to fornicate, to contracept, to abort our children, to commit sodomy, and so on, ad infinitum. What might not be “right” for them according to their experience is “right” for us according to ours. Morality is therefore based on the immanence of my/our individual experience of my/our “situation,” that is, on subjectivism. Since moral norms do not transcend the particular, they have no universal application; consequently, they provide no basis for fostering mutual understanding and order in the family or in any human society.
In addition, moral subjectivism seems to forget that the intellect must often make judgments about possible courses of action before the person ever engages in them, so that he can determine objectively whether he ought to engage in them at all. It does not stand to reason that I need to have the actual experience of white water rafting over Niagara Falls in order to arrive at the truth, moments before my demise, that this was not such a good idea.
Moral subjectivism would nevertheless have us subordinate and accommodate our spiritual faculties of intellect and will to the irrational meaning that we are inclined to confer on our experiences, based on our psychoemotive and sensual reactions to them. The “truth” about moral good or evil is then determined by whether I happen to feel “sincerely” attracted to, or strongly repelled by, the experiences I’m having, and not by an intellectual judgment, commanded by a free will, about whether I ought to pursue those experiences as objectively good, or avoid them as objectively bad, irrespective of how I might feel about them. Subjective truth is consequently bound to the here and now of our direct experiences, with all the emotions, feelings, and habitual behaviors to which those experiences give rise, and by which they can enslave us to a way of life unworthy of our personal dignity.
Clearly, an anthropology such as this does not take seriously our fallen condition, because of which we might actually feel exhilarated by, and hence attracted to, immoral and radically evil experiences. Our transgression of moral boundaries with seeming impunity could thus give us a perverse “rush” that we might experience as uniquely thrilling and hence “good,” despite the moral gravity and personal destructiveness of what we’re doing. Having thus forsaken rationality, wisdom, and objective moral goodness, we fail to recognize, in the evil, narcissistic experiences that we seek, the foretaste of the eternal dying toward which we are heading eagerly, though blindly.
Heedless of all this, Farrell’s epistemologically vacuous subjectivism leads inexorably to the conclusion, consonant with AL, that the best person to judge, or “discern,” the morality of a situation is the one experiencing it. It follows, for example, that only Catholics in adulterous unions are in a position to tell us how detrimental it would be to their relationship and the good of the children, and hence how “immoral” it would be, if they were to forgo sexual intimacy (see AL, n. 329). Likewise, only a married couple could tell us about the “morally responsible” use of contraception. How could a priest who has never been married possibly appreciate the “wisdom” that comes with these experiences? How dare he have recourse to God’s moral law, so as to throw stones of moral judgment at these couples (see AL, 305)! He must have recourse, rather, to the sensus infidelium!
These days, many bishops are advising the faithful that the Church has to “listen” to what the “Spirit”–really, the infernal spirit of Modernism–is telling her through the people who are actually living through (deviant) experiences of every kind. In that way, she can “learn” from them about the truth and value–about the “constructive elements” (AL, 292)–contained in those experiences, and then “integrate” that knowledge into her teaching, changing it accordingly. (Lamentabili, art. 6, and Pascendi, art. 27 condemn this position.) After all, traditional Church teaching isn’t speaking to people’s actual, lived experiences anymore. These have evolved, such that Catholics no longer accept (or “receive”) the old moral teaching. Thus, their personal experience and their interior religious sense (or “conscience”) have reciprocally “progressed” beyond the longstanding ways and mentality of the Church.
We must therefore delegate roles previously reserved for the ordained ministry to lay leaders who, through their experiences, are more “in the know” about how life really is. Indeed, such leaders should be ordained, men and women alike. Opening priestly ordination to everyone, and decentralizing ecclesial authority by getting lay input on doctrinal and moral matters, will help the Church “evolve” into a less “discriminatory,” more egalitarian society. (Lamentabili, art. 53 condemns this principle.)
It just doesn’t get any more subjectivistic than that. We see, then, that Cardinal Farrell’s claim that priests lack credibility in marriage prep (and hence in any marriage-related ministry) is really loaded. His anthropological presuppositions, so beholden to Modernism, lead predictably to Modernistic conclusions that are false, anti-intellectual, morally bankrupt, and hence radically dehumanizing.
The controversy surrounding Amoris Laetitia, chapter 8, shows no signs of letting up, even now that more than a year and a half has passed since the publication of the document. And that’s how it should be. For, while some prelates have been quick to turn our attention to the doctrine of marital indissolubility and assure us that the document hasn’t changed it, they have invariably failed to mention that chapter 8 introduces quietly a momentous change in the Church’s teaching on conscience and its role in the moral evaluation of human acts. That one change, which is not taught explicitly but simply urged “pastorally,” would ultimately undermine every theological and moral doctrine–and consequently every pastoral practice–that the Church has ever held dear, but for the fact that the divine Bridegroom, ever faithful to His Bride, will never stand for it.
The diabolical change in teaching that Amoris Laetitia (hereafter, AL) has unofficially but effectively instigated is tucked away neatly under the seemingly innocuous word “discernment.” The immediate purpose of that change is to supplant, in practice, both the Church’s perennial teaching on how to assess the morality of acts in conscience, and the spiritually salutary pastoral disciplines that flow harmoniously from it. Two such radically opposed understandings can obviously not coexist peacefully and amicably. And so, the controversy will rage on until God sees fit to scatter with His truth and goodness the darkness that now envelops the Church.
The purpose of this essay is to highlight the inherently untenable nature of the view of conscience and moral discernment that Pope Francis has presented in AL, chapter 8. First, I will lay out briefly the five main principles on which that view is based. These are the principles that Pope Francis and some bishops are invoking to justify radical changes in pastoral practice–especially sacramental practice. These are the principles that they claim to believe. Next, I will explain some of the reasons why these same principles are ultimately not credible, and so ought not to be believed. Finally, I will give examples of how the pope and some of the bishops claiming to embrace AL’s distorted view of conscience and discernment march to an entirely different tune when its literal application to certain situations would not yield the outcome they desire, or when anyone would dare question, in good faith, the compatibility of that view with official Church teaching. This gives us cause to wonder whether the pope and bishops such as these really do, in fact, believe what AL’s chapter 8 tells us about discerning the morality of human acts.
What Pope Francis and Some Bishops Claim to Believe about Conscience and the Discernment of Acts, as Presented in AL
In AL, Pope Francis presents his understanding of conscience and its role in assessing, or “discerning,” the morality of human acts mainly in his dealing with the problem of divorced Catholics who have entered a civil marriage and thus violated the Sixth Commandment; however, the understanding of conscience and discernment that he applies to that situation cannot very well remain confined to it, and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see why. For it is clear that the principles he sets forth for the moral evaluation, in conscience, of adulterous acts apply necessarily to the acts of persons who are routinely violating any of God’s commandments, or who are making a moral decision of any kind. For that reason, I will present AL’s five main principles of discernment apart from their specific application to adultery.
1. To begin, Pope Francis states that persons committing objectively grave sin “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” (AL, 298). In other words, the pope believes that the general categories we use to classify different types of sin (e.g., adultery, stealing, or murder) do not take into account the many details and complexities specific to concrete situations involving objectively serious sin. Why is that? Because, even though different people might be committing the same type of sin viewed objectively, the subjective reasons for their doing so, and the circumstances under which they act, can vary widely (see AL, 302).
Okay, fair enough. Consider, for example, that the Church’s moral teaching, and even secular law, has long recognized the difference between premeditated and unpremeditated acts–between, say, a murder that was consciously planned and freely executed, and a murder resulting from a spontaneous “crime of passion” that was, nevertheless, still willed deliberately. While the fundamentally heinous nature of the crime and its tragic consequences are on the same order, it is nevertheless reasonable to conclude that the degree of subjective guilt and culpability for committing the crime varies somewhat between these two cases. The process of discernment in conscience must attend to the circumstances and the subjective conditions that result in such variations before it can render the most reasonable judgment possible on the person’s subjective state at the time the act was perpetrated.
The pope does not make it entirely clear whether he thinks sinful situations that are objectively identical (since the persons involved are committing the same type of sin) should be classified differently when they have different subjective and circumstantial reasons underlying them. But the quotation from AL cited above could easily be interpreted in that direction without any inconsistency. Indeed, that seems to be exactly how the pope does interpret it, given his exclusive use of the term “‘irregular’ situation” to describe the objective state of fornication or adultery in which some Catholics are living.
2. In AL, Pope Francis focuses on situations that are willed with sufficient deliberation, and therefore premeditated. For example, he claims that some people “may know full well the [moral] rule” they are violating, and “yet have great difficulty in understanding ‘its inherent values’” (AL, 301). In consequence, the pope concludes that the subjective difficulty they’re having understanding the values that a fundamental moral precept (such as one of the Ten Commandments) aims to uphold constitutes a mitigating factor that relieves them of some or all of the subjective guilt and blame that they might otherwise have incurred for transgressing it–that is, for deliberately committing a sin involving objectively grave matter. If there had been no deliberate decision to sin, then the pope would have had no reason for discussing possible mitigating factors in the first place.
3. Pope Francis claims further that some subjects are quite conscious not only of the morally bad character of their situation, but also of the reasons why it is bad. Yet they are conscious as well “of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that [they] would fall into new sins” (AL, 298). Here, he seems to mean that they have decided to abide in a concrete situation of personal sin, not because they can’t understand the inherent values of the fundamental moral rule they’re breaking, but because conscience is telling them that their situation “does not allow [them] to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin” (AL, 301; italics added). In a word, it is their moral duty, as formulated in conscience, to keep committing the same sin–to keep transgressing God’s moral law–in their present situation.
4. If a person transgresses God’s moral law because conscience urges him that he is morally bound to do so, then it would seem to follow that the transgression accords with God’s will for him. For the Church teaches that conscience is “the most secret core and sanctuary of a person”; it is the “place” where the voice of God “echoes in the depths of the heart” (Gaudium et Spes, 16; see AL, 222). In itself, that passage might seem to equate the “voice” of conscience that is urging someone to sin with the very echo of God’s own “voice” communicating intimately with the subject. Pope Francis seems to argue precisely along those lines:
Conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal (AL, 303).
So, the pope seems to regard the very persons who are intent on transgressing God’s moral law as the ones who are often, at the same time, in the best position to discern for themselves just how well they are responding to God’s call in their life by doing so. For they alone have an intimate knowledge of the limiting factors at work in their particular, complex situation. And that apparently renders them especially attuned to the voice of God inviting them secretly, in the depths of conscience, to disregard His Commandments–at least for now.
While it is true that Pope Francis insists on the responsibility of pastors to help grave sinners discern their situation in conscience according to Church teaching and “the guidelines of the bishop” (AL, 300), he charges, nevertheless, that pastors sometimes “find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” (AL, 37). It seems, then, that the comfort level that sinners have, in conscience, with their sinful situation is the final arbiter of what constitutes moral good or evil in their lives. Any pastors involved in their discernment would therefore have to honor their decision to abide in evil, should they so decide.
5. Since Pope Francis believes that conscience–and perhaps God speaking therein–exonerates some subjects either partially or fully from the serious sin that they’re committing deliberately and persistently, he encourages us to take more stock of the “constructive elements” arising from their objectively sinful situation (see AL, 292; 298). He seems to regard those elements as “paths of sanctification that give glory to God” (AL, 305).
Why Pope Francis and the Bishops Should Not Believe AL’s View of Conscience and the Discernment of Acts
The reader might have found some aspects of the preceding summary to have the ring of truth about them. There is good reason for that: As do many seductive but false ideas, AL both utilizes and subtly distorts the truth in order to advance its viewpoint, which, in this case, serves to buttress the dubious pastoral conclusions that the pope and certain bishops seemed already intent on reaching to begin with. The truth that AL has fundamentally deformed is that of official Catholic Church teaching on conscience and its role in assessing the morality of human acts. It will therefore be helpful for us to examine, in the same order, each of the five principles covered above, giving some of the reasons why AL’s treatment of conscience and acts is wholly unacceptable. We will then look more specifically at the fundamental flaw underlying it all.
The Problems: A Point-by-Point Analysis
1. In order to try and establish, with reasonable accuracy, to what degree someone is subjectively guilty of committing objectively serious sin, it is indeed necessary to consider, to the extent possible, the relevant details and complexities (personal or otherwise) specific to the situation in which the act was, or continues to be, committed. The Church teaches us as much. But those same considerations are not necessary to determine whether the act or repeated acts are objectively evil in themselves. Nor, therefore, are they necessary to determine whether one is duty-bound to avoid such acts, regardless of the circumstances or one’s subjective state.
AL seems particularly reluctant to concede that last point. This lends itself to the temptation to classify sins, not according to their essence (that is, according to their object–their defining purpose, which sinners seek directly and deliberately to realize by committing them), but according to subjective criteria (such as the personal motives behind the sinful acts) and circumstantial criteria (such as the alleged benefits these sins will bring to others). In that way, sins belonging objectively to the same, specific category could be distinguished from one another, despite their essential identity. One might then presume to recategorize some of them under a new, more innocuous name. The new name and the subjective state that it implies would seemingly provide a basis, or at least a plausible excuse, for viewing and treating certain sins differently from others of the same type–almost as non-sins. After all, cohabitation sounds much less nefarious than fornication or adultery, and it seems to imply the “constructive elements” of commitment, stability, sharing, and so on, whereas the other two terms do not.
The fact is, however, that cheating on one’s spouse, whether because unhappily married or because it helps relieve stress while away from home, is still adultery. Unjustly taking and keeping someone else’s property against his reasonable will, whether for one’s personal gain or for distribution to the poor, is still stealing. And the deliberate killing of someone who has no manifest intention to kill anyone, whether one’s act is premeditated or unpremeditated, is still murder.
These (and all) gravely sinful actions ought always to be classified objectively for what they are. Otherwise, people could easily be lulled into thinking that subjective and circumstantial factors justify their enacting them in some cases. They do not. The choice for such actions, evil in themselves, entails necessarily a disordered will–a will that has set itself on committing the moral evil that defines the action itself. In the first place, therefore, the choice entails necessarily a decision about oneself: the decision to become an evil person by doing something that one knows to be evil.
The effects of evil actions extend also beyond the sinner, and even beyond the immediate victims or parties involved, so as to harm–to an unknown and incalculable degree–still others, society at large, and even the order of the world itself. Good intentions, human weakness, or difficult circumstances do not alter that fact. They can never remove completely either the direct or the indirect evils caused by an evil act.
So, while AL encourages personal and pastoral discernment to emphasize the importance of the subjective and circumstantial factors involved in objectively evil situations (often with the effect of whitewashing the latter), discernment has no power whatsoever to neutralize the evil unleashed by those situations merely by presuming to view them as somehow favorable under certain conditions. Nor, therefore, does it have the authority to reclassify an evil situation to make it seem relatively benign.
2. In AL, Pope Francis tells us that people “find” themselves in a variety of complicated (moral) situations (see AL, 297, 298, 312), as if to suggest that these subjects played no conscious role in constituting the situations in which they are willfully living and acting immorally. He thus makes them out to be merely hapless victims of circumstance. But the examples that he gives belie his words.
In number 2 of section one above, for example, I quoted the pope telling us about people who have full knowledge of the moral norm that they are routinely transgressing. Such knowledge indicates that they have put themselves deliberately in a situation that they know to be morally bad. But why did they do that? Because they supposedly had trouble seeing exactly why the situation is so bad. In the pope’s view, they simply don’t understand the purpose of the norm.
Is that a credible argument? Recall the context: Pope Francis is referring mainly to validly married Catholics who have civilly divorced and “remarried.” They “know full well” that Church law forbids that, and they know why: it is opposed to the Sixth Commandment (not to mention the Ninth) and to the words of Christ Himself (see Mt 5:27-28; 5:32; 19:3-9). And so they also know that they are committing the grave sin of adultery in having established a conjugal relationship with a second “spouse.”
If nothing else, these subjects cannot but know that they are bound to obey the precept against adultery because of the supreme authority of God, who commanded its observance unconditionally. But the values that the Commandments (particularly as interpreted by Christ) were established to uphold–reverence toward the Creator and toward one’s parents, the inviolability of human life, of marriage, and of a person’s good name, and so on–are so fundamental, so intuitively grasped, and so consonant with human flourishing that only a deliberate idiot could have “great difficulty” understanding them. They all fall within the scope of both the Silver and the Golden Rule (see Tobit 4:15 and Mt 7:12 respectively), which express principles of moral judgment that even young children have no problem assimilating. Their import cannot but resonate in a sincere conscience.
Granted, it is unlikely, given the lamentable state of fallen human nature, that any of us can appreciate fully the values that faithful observance of the Commandments protects, upholds, and fosters. Nevertheless, every reasonable person knows enough to know better than to transgress the moral law. We do, in fact, grasp sufficiently the inherent values of its precepts. The real problem is that we simply will to realize “values” opposed to them–even if only as a means of establishing a new “situation” in which to realize the objectively good values of the moral law, as AL suggests speciously and with unintended irony (e.g., see AL, 292, 298).
Clearly, then, the pope’s claim that one can know a fundamental moral norm but not understand its import is not credible. In making that claim, he effectively encourages grave sinners to abide in their sin. And he does so precisely by patronizing them–by making them out to be moral and intellectual idiots who don’t know their right hand from their left.
3. It is evident that the persons mentioned in number 3 of section one above, like those in number 2, are responsible for having put themselves in a situation of serious sin. They know that the situation is sinful, and they know why it is sinful. Yet they suppose that they had good reasons for entering the situation, or that they now have good reasons for remaining in it. And so, the pope tells us, they have become convinced that it would only lead to new sins if they were to go back. Go back to what? To the moral (even if “unhappy”) way of life they were living before they chose to live in sin. The context makes that meaning all too clear.
The immoral situation that these subjects have put themselves in has led to consequences that have increased the situation’s “complexity.” For that reason, they make a startling claim–one with which the pope seems entirely too sympathetic: a return to a moral way of life at this time would prevent them from tending morally to the new situation that they have created within their immoral situation. Let’s be more specific: they are claiming that conscience demands they continue transgressing God’s moral law, which would otherwise become the source of other sins. That claim is absolutely blasphemous. It is also contrary to a fundamental moral principle that obliges every human conscience: One must never do evil that good might come of it (see Rm 3:8).
4. In number 4, section one above, we recalled the Church’s teaching that conscience is “the most secret core and sanctuary of a person.” There, the voice of God “echoes in the depths of the heart” (Gaudium et Spes, 16). But then we must ask: Why would God ever urge anyone therein to violate the moral law that He Himself has established and publicly revealed, and that He has commanded us to follow absolutely? The moral law whose absolute truth the incarnate Son of God confirmed publicly, lived out perfectly, and died for selflessly? AL does not answer that question and, undoubtedly, does not want to call attention to it. For no reasonable answer is possible.
Nevertheless, we saw that Pope Francis claims God does, in fact, act thus in some situations. That claim, like the previous one, is absolutely blasphemous. What is more, it necessitates the fabrication of a false god that “mercifully” grants dispensations from the unconditional demands of the moral law–that is, from the most basic, concrete expressions of authentic love and respect for one’s neighbor and for God Himself. Ironically, the same claim also implies that the process of pastoral co-discernment, to which AL devotes so much attention, is often superfluous in practice, or even counterproductive.
Clearly, then, AL presupposes a radically false notion of conscience–one that presupposes and demands a radically false, thoroughly subjectivistic notion of God. A further look at Gaudium et Spes, 16, reminds us that while the processes of conscience take place within the subject, they testify to something that comes from beyond the subject. Indeed, they testify to God’s summoning us to do good and to avoid evil, and hence to obey the moral law, which He has written on the human heart. (Of course, that law is also enshrined in the Commandments, which the Christian conscience must welcome into its judgments in order to be true to itself.)
While conscience can err through no fault of its own without thereby losing its dignity, the conscience that errs because of the person’s disregard for truth and goodness, or because of the moral blindness that has developed out of his persistence in sin, compromises its own dignity. Right conscience, on the contrary, strives to be guided by the objective norms of morality. By allowing itself to be guided so, and by hearkening to God’s voice, it can avoid “subjective caprice and accommodation to prevailing social mores” in its judgments (AL, 222).
5. Because he is unduly confident that some persons persisting in grave sin are sinning in sincerity of conscience–and perhaps even under God’s secret instruction therein–Pope Francis suggests that we look at the “constructive elements” of their sinful situation. If a person’s good intentions and best efforts, amid his limitations, seem to reflect and to realize a high order of values, then the pope interprets the “good fruits” being produced thus as paths to sanctification. It does not seem to matter that the very existence of those fruits–of those “constructive elements” (subjectively reckoned as such by “discerning” observers)–depends on the sinner’s persistently transgressing a fundamental moral norm. But that is simply too great a destructive element for the pope to dismiss so lightly.
God Himself has established the precepts of the divinely revealed moral law as the paths of sanctification along which we are to walk, and thereby to glorify Him. He has commanded that we follow those paths because we cannot fulfill our dignity as children of God or respect that dignity in others if we depart from them. To treat ourselves or anyone else, knowingly and willingly, according to any standard less than what the Commandments demand constitutes both an attack against the human person and an affront to God. And that’s a sure-fire path to hell, not a sanctifying path to heaven. It would be utterly presumptuous to “discern” otherwise.
Nevertheless, Pope Francis doesn’t think we should look at things in such “black and white” terms (see AL, 305), lest we fail to appreciate that the violation of God’s commands can provide the occasion for the realization of “constructive” values, and consequently for growth in grace and charity–at least when mitigating factors seem to prevail. More simply, the pope is telling us once again that the end can justify the means, that we can do evil–even persistently–as long as so much good is coming out of it. It is no wonder, then, that as soon as AL was published, some prelates were eager to proclaim, on the basis of the document, that two men could persist in their sodomitic “relationship” when it has evidently introduced a constructive “stability” and other “positive values” into their lives. And thus goes, ad infinitum, the “logic” of the lawlessness woven so artfully into AL, chapter 8.
The Crux of the Matter: Where AL Goes Wrong
Like AL, Church teaching considers both the objective and the subjective dimensions of human action. Unlike AL, however, the official, irreformable teaching of the Church properly orders and duly measures those two dimensions when explaining how conscience evaluates the morality of an act. In that way, the Church upholds and fosters the proper relation between conscience and the moral law.
In choosing to perform a particular kind of act, the person wills deliberately to bring about directly a certain end. That’s his object. That’s what he aims to achieve immediately by the act. The object, therefore, is that which primarily and decisively defines, or specifies, the act as morally good or evil. Attention to the specific kind of act involved, therefore, has priority over subjective considerations in assessing, or “discerning,” the act’s moral quality. Practically speaking, this means that just because certain subjective conditions and concrete circumstances might seem to warrant one’s doing something evil in a concrete situation, conscience is not thereby permitted to judge validly that the direct (or even the indirect) willing of objective evil is a licit means of effecting good. Right conscience never justifies an evil act.
The act of conscience is a practical judgment of reason about the moral quality of human actions. As a function of the intellect–a spiritual faculty–conscience can know objectively what is the true moral good that one ought to do, and what is the concrete moral evil that one ought to avoid doing. It can apprehend–at least in a fundamental and sufficient way–both the essential nature of different types of moral actions and something of the real effects, for good or for ill, that they cause both in the actor himself and beyond him. Conscience is therefore morally bound to judge actions according to their true moral character. That explains the need and the moral responsibility of each person to educate, or inform, conscience as fully as possible. While the person is obliged to obey the moral imperatives of a properly formed conscience, he must never act on an ill-informed or a doubtful one.
The Church’s confidence in upholding the priority of the objective over the subjective in the moral evaluation of human action is not merely epistemological. It is supported further by the fact that conscience is assisted, in making its moral judgments, by its knowledge of the objective, divinely revealed moral law, and by the light afforded it by divine grace. AL does not take seriously the fact that a person’s persistence in an objectively sinful situation is often itself a sign of the rejection of these two divine realities, and hence also a sign of a bad conscience. Through persistent, serious sin, conscience can become so blind to objective truth and goodness, so subjectively self-justifying, so morally indifferent, as to be functionally dead.
While the Church gives priority to the type of act involved (together with its inherent aim) as the objective, the primary, and the decisive means by which to assess the act’s morality, she still recognizes the need to give due attention to any subjective and circumstantial factors that she can identify as relevant to that assessment in a given instance. For example, in the case of an act that can be morally good in itself (e.g., giving alms), those factors could cause the act to become morally bad (as when you give alms only so that others will praise you for it, or when you are willing to give away hardly any of your excessive wealth to help a needy soul). For, a bad intention (seeking glory rather than another’s good: hypocrisy) or a particular circumstance (miserliness in the face of extreme poverty) can be so constitutive of an otherwise good act that it determines, as evil, the end for which the will deliberately acts.
On the other hand, the inverse is never true: a good intention or a particular circumstance can never cause an act that is morally evil in itself to become morally good. While certain subjective or circumstantial factors can diminish or wholly eliminate one’s personal guilt and culpability for committing an act that is, objectively, morally bad (as when one lies due to fear, coercion, or invincible ignorance, rather than by a free and deliberate act); and while they can even diminish the moral evil of such an act (e.g., stealing a petty sum from a rich man out of desperation), they can never alter the fundamentally evil nature of an act that is intrinsically disordered in itself. Nor, therefore, can they ever eliminate fully the evil effects unleashed by the performance of the act, or justify one’s past, present, or future commission of the act (whether only once or repeatedly). Indeed, they might even increase the intensity of its evil (as when one steals a large sum from a poor man out of greed). So the intentional end, whatever the circumstances, never justifies the means used to achieve it.
In AL, Pope Francis trivializes that last point by urging us, as we “discern” the morality of acts involving grave matter, to give priority, not to the objectively (or intrinsically) evil character of the concrete act itself, but to the subjective motivations and conditions underlying the act, and to the concrete circumstances bearing on them. That subtle but fatal shift demands, in turn, a completely subjectivized notion of conscience. The objective evil is viewed, not according to practical reason, as that which I must avoid doing for any reason under any circumstances, but according to how I interpret it subjectively, based on what I intend to achieve by doing it for my reasons under my circumstances. I am then disposed to view and to experience the evil as something good (at least for the most part), given my motives, my limitations, and the complexities of my concrete situation.
It follows that I am entitled to have my own, personal truth about what qualifies as morally good or evil in my life, and that everyone else should have to acknowledge that “truth,” even if they have arrived at a different point of view based on their own experiences in life (see AL, 138). This “truth” would apparently include the “feeling in conscience” that my doing the objectively evil thing results in less sin than would my renouncing it, or that God is satisfied with my persistence in the evil at the present time because of the complexities in which I “find” myself.
If good intentions and limiting conditions constitute the main criteria of moral judgment, then it follows necessarily that there must be exceptions to every moral rule–including what God Himself has commanded in his public (or objective) revelation. This means that there are no moral norms that are absolutely binding on everyone in every time, place, and circumstance. Instead, the individual person, perhaps with the encouragement of “pastoral” counselors, determines whether it is appropriate, in a given instance, situation, or cultural context, to violate a general moral norm–even one that God has revealed definitely in Christ as universally and absolutely binding on conscience.
Clearly, then, Pope Francis’s inversion of the priority of objective over subjective factors, in what he likes to call the discernment of the morality of a situation, is nothing short of catastrophic, undermining the whole edifice of Catholic moral teaching. For, rational judgment regarding the real truth about moral good and evil is not possible without objectivity–without due attention to the deliberate object of the will in action, which defines the moral state of affairs for what it really is in essence and in truth. Good intentions are one thing. Using an evil means to realize them, and regarding that evil consequently as something good (even if not fully “ideal”), is quite another.
Once we reject the objective truth about the moral good and begin to live in an objectively evil way, our darkened mind and our prideful need to justify ourselves (itself an attempt to suppress God’s merciful call, in conscience, to repentance and conversion) will lead us to reject the objective truth about God Himself, as He has revealed Himself in Christ. Thus, moral corruption leads to theological corruption: we presume to tamper with the true doctrine of the only true God, with the result that the whole deposit of faith begins to unravel. In AL, for example, God’s mercy has become newly defined as moral indifference (a projection of our own), since chapter 8 would have us believe that God proportions His moral law to suit the situation of the sinner. From the fabrication of false divinities to justify our moral degeneracy, the slide into atheism and the worship of power, wealth, sex, deception, lies, violence, and terror–that is, the worship of self–is typically not far behind. This means nothing less than a total disregard for, and hence the destruction of, the human person.
Examples of Why Pope Francis and the Bishops Promoting AL’s View of Conscience and the Discernment of Acts Do Not Really Seem to Believe it Themselves
In the examples that follow, we’ll see that Pope Francis and the bishops claiming to believe AL’s view of conscience and discernment don’t always put it into practice. But there seems to be something more to that than sheer hypocrisy. They seem to be methodically selective about to whom they’re willing to apply the subjectivistic principles they profess to believe. For example, when faced with persons who voice objections to those principles based on the objective truth about how conscience and the moral law properly relate, they suddenly lose their pastoral zeal for accompanying the unique journey of each individual conscience and seek, rather, to smother quickly, sometimes ruthlessly, any voice expressing a judgment of conscience that has affirmed the inviolability of the natural moral order. This suggests, in turn, that the pope and the bishops promoting AL’s errors never really had a sincere conviction about its position in the first place: they seem to know already that it’s built on sand, and that it will collapse under the weight of truth. It is merely a means to an end.
The final remarks of the preceding section suggest that what these “pastors” are really after is to change (if not wholly demolish) the Church’s authoritative moral teaching. That change, as we saw, entails the need to change also her theology, so that it will accommodate the new “morality.” Of course, Our Lord will never permit such changes to really happen, for He is faithful to His Bride and cannot deny Himself. But the proponents of change seem not to grasp that. Rather, they seem intent on introducing changes to the Church’s traditional moral teaching (and therefore into her theology as well), first, by subterfuge–by novel “pastoral” practices and their specious rationales, which effectively deny Church teaching–and then by “solemn” declaration as resistance breaks down from the ongoing erosion of moral integrity. Instigating changes to the Church’s moral teaching, particularly in the area of sexual morality, has always been the ultimate goal of Catholic moral revisionism, whose method–that of promoting moral relativism and hedonism by redefining them as fruits of mature “discernment”–Pope Francis seems clearly to have embraced.
While those who scheme thus are foolish in their thinking, it is nevertheless true that many poor souls are buying into this sweeping “pastoral” rejection of the Church’s moral and doctrinal patrimony. As a result, they will gravitate naturally, if perhaps gradually, toward atheistic unbelief–at least in practice–and hence toward the utterly debased anthropology that goes with it. And that will bring to a head the degradation and the destruction of the human person initiated by AL’s insidious introduction of the new “morality” into the Church’s life and practice.
For now, let us simply note that AL’s position on conscience and discernment was contrived to accommodate the subjectivistic, self-justifying fantasies of sinners, not to promote the objective, universal moral good of the human person. It can therefore be applied to moral “situations” only insofar as it serves that purpose. When it does not, and especially when it comes to anyone who objects to that purpose on rationally sound moral grounds sustained by divine revelation and authoritative Church teaching, AL’s insistence on having respect for and boundless patience with a “discerning” conscience is immediately abandoned by the very ones who promote that approach and claim most to believe in it.
Opting for Objectivity: Pope Francis Does a 180 to Handle Ahiara
For four and a half years, the priests of the Diocese of Ahiara in Nigeria refused to accept the bishop that Pope Benedict XVI had appointed as local ordinary in December 2012. Last June, after having considered suppressing the diocese in response, Pope Francis decided instead to command each of the priests to send him, within 30 days, a personal letter asking for forgiveness and expressing both his “total obedience to the pope” and his willingness “to accept the bishop whom the pope sends and has appointed.” Otherwise, the priest would be automatically suspended a divinis; that is, he would be forbidden to exercise his priesthood and would “lose his current office.”
Pope Francis also declared, “Whoever was opposed” to the bishop “taking possession of the diocese wants to destroy the Church.” And “whoever offends her commits a mortal sin, it’s very serious.” The pope insists that his action was necessary because the priests have “scandalized” the people of God and must therefore “suffer the consequences.”
The situation in the Diocese of Ahiara was unquestionably serious. The pope certainly possesses the authority to act as he did, and he should, arguably, have acted precisely as he did–especially after less drastic methods had failed to resolve the situation. The point here is whether his words and actions in this case are consistent with the position on conscience and discernment that he espouses in AL. It does not seem so.
Where the priests of the Ahiara diocese were concerned, Pope Francis seemed to have dismissed out of hand any subjective, cultural, or circumstantial factors that he might have taken into account in dealing with the situation. While the priests had expressed concern that the bishop appointed to head the diocese–an ethnic outsider from another state–would be unsuited to serve the needs of the diocese, the pope judged that “we are not dealing with tribalism, but with an attempted taking of the vineyard of the Lord.” And while he believed that the priests within the diocese were being manipulated by their brother priests living abroad or by others from outside the diocese, the pope still judged their actions an offense against the Church–a mortal sin–despite his having acknowledged that they might not have had “full awareness of the wound inflicted upon the ecclesial communion.”
So, the pope seems not to have considered the possibility that these or other mitigating factors might have caused the Ahiara priests to have “great difficulty” understanding the values at stake, or that such factors did not “allow [them] to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin.” Nor did he seem to consider the possibility that these priests might have arrived at a “certain moral security” in conscience that God Himself was asking them to rebel against the episcopal appointment–this being the most generous response they could muster amid the concrete complexity of their limits.
On the contrary, it seems that Pope Francis based his judgment mainly on the objectively evil nature of the sin being committed: the priests were offending against Mother Church and thereby causing scandal to the faithful. The object of their deliberate will was evil in itself, and no degree of subjective inculpability could justify the pope’s allowing these priests to persist in the evil situation that they “found” themselves in. There was no need for an extended period of discernment about this grave matter. In consequence, the pope demanded–without qualification–that the Ahiara priests be totally obedient to him. One must therefore ask why the pope did not demand, in AL, that sinners exercise the same total obedience to God and His moral law, whose precepts forbid, absolutely and unconditionally, the commission of intrinsically evil acts such as adultery.
Pope Francis’s Dubious Response to the Dubia
Pope Francis’s dealing with the Ahiara situation involved a decisive intervention wholly at odds with the approach he espouses in AL. Ironically, his reasons for the intervention were consistent with traditional Church teaching on the discernment of acts. The manner in which the pope has dealt with Cardinals Meisner, Caffarra, Brandmüller, and Burke in their efforts to get him to resolve the ecclesiastical confusion and division that has followed, unabated, the publication of AL has involved a steadfast refusal to intervene. Yet that refusal is also at odds with the approach he espouses in AL.
If the pope had been inclined, in the present case, to act in a manner consistent with AL’s view of pastoral discernment and accompaniment, he would not have responded to the four cardinals by studiously ignoring them. Instead, he would have taken them under his paternal wing and tried to get at the limiting factors that were hindering them from understanding the subjectivistic position undergirding AL’s view of conscience and the morality of acts–the view that he claims to believe sincerely. At the very least, the conversation would have enabled him to discern their sincerity of conscience, their deepest conviction that, in view of the circumstances–namely, the ongoing confusion, acrimonious division, scandal, and mortal danger to souls that AL has caused–God is urging them to seek the pope’s intervention to stem the crisis. They are simply obeying God’s voice to the best of their ability, whatever their subjective limitations might be.
The pope’s refusal to reply to the cardinals and to the dubia they submitted to him is most telling: it only confirms that AL’s position on conscience and the morality of human acts is rationally indefensible. If that were not so, the pope would have had much to discuss with them. But the fact is, if the pope were to answer any of the dubia following AL’s lead (i.e., the first in the affirmative and the remaining four in the negative), then that would expose AL’s views as radically opposed to the authoritative teaching of the Church, whose truth, as truth, is always consistent, coherent, and rationally defensible in the face of uncertainty, challenges, or attack.
Pope Francis was therefore compelled to maintain his silence amid the questioning of AL’s questionable views. They simply cannot withstand intelligent scrutiny or the light of revealed truth. As a result, it has fallen on the more vociferous members of his inner circle and of the episcopacy to wage an unscrupulous PR campaign against anyone who would dare question AL’s doctrinal integrity or interpret the document differently from the way Pope Francis and they do.
The Maradiaga Method: Defending AL by Vilifying its Critics
A case in point is Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga’s merciless, ad hominem attack on Cardinal Raymond Burke in an interview published last May. Maradiaga heads Pope Francis’s Council of Cardinals, the pope’s nine closest advisors. Because Cardinal Burke has been especially forthright and consistent in publicly expressing his concerns about AL, and because he is one of the four cardinals who have sought papal clarification of some (but by no means all) of the problematic passages in AL, Maradiaga (who, in the interview, referred to Burke derisively as “that cardinal” and “this other”) mischaracterized him as “a disappointed man” who “wanted power and lost it.” In other words, Burke is doing nothing more than seeking attention after his fall from prominence. According to Maradiaga, Catholics of Burke’s ilk “seek power and not the truth.” They are “proud, arrogant,” believing that “they have a superior intellect.”
And so, Maradiaga summarily dismissed Burke’s substantial critiques of AL as merely “the words of a poor man” whose opinions “don’t merit further comment.” At the same time, however, he was helpless to mount a reasonable defense of the views in AL that he purports to champion, except to identify the pope facilely with the Church’s magisterium (perhaps implying that the charism of papal infallibility is unlimited, and consequently that AL’s errors qualify as truth). He sought thus to deny Burke, with equal superficiality, any apostolic teaching role whatsoever.
Now, if Cardinal Maradiaga were really convinced of AL’s subjectivistic view of conscience and discernment, he would never have feigned the ability to pontificate “infallibly” on what motivates Cardinal Burke’s respectful efforts to have the pope clarify the Church teachings that AL’s muddled remarks and deliberate distortions have obfuscated so effectively. After all, AL requires that he renounce the temptation to judge someone’s subjective state (poor, disappointed, power-hungry man) based on what he is objectively doing (seeking clarification from the pope). It requires that he acknowledge his spiritual illiteracy relative to Burke’s (or anyone else’s) interior state–at least until after he has “accompanied” him in the process of discernment, which allegedly enables one person to penetrate the soul of another in order to ascertain his spiritual standing before God.
If Maradiaga really did have any substantial grounds for thinking that Burke was in error and having difficulty “living God’s law to the full” (AL, 306), then AL would have his heart be moved with compassion toward the “wayward” cardinal. It would have him extend mercifully, to his brother, an invitation to travel the via caritatis together (see ibid.). Perhaps after a period of co-discernment, Burke would see things differently.
Or, perhaps Maradiaga would discern that his brother cardinal has been acting in good conscience, that he is wholly convinced that God would have him act in no other way, and that it would therefore be a sin for him to act otherwise. Maradiaga might even come to see some “constructive elements” in Burke’s actions. For example, Burke’s recourse to Pope Francis and his desire to serve him manifests both his loyalty to the pope, which Maradiaga has called into question, and his unflagging faith in the primacy of Peter’s successor–particularly as regards the pope’s divinely willed and historically eminent role in resolving, solemnly and authoritatively, questions about faith and morals.
The Joseph Tobin Method: Advancing AL by Discounting Critics and Ditching Discernment
Compared with Cardinal Maradiaga’s unabashed and calumnious denunciation of Cardinal Burke, Cardinal Joseph Tobin, who now heads the Archdiocese of Newark in New Jersey, was considerably more reserved in his criticism of the four cardinals and the dubia they submitted to Pope Francis. During an interview, Tobin called the dubia a “naive” reduction of “difficult pastoral questions.” What is more, he opined that the dubia are “troublesome,” in that the four cardinals are thereby calling into question both the work of two synods and the pope’s effort to capture it in AL. But does Tobin give us reason to think that he really believes in the final product?
Back in April, the cardinal agreed to allow a pilgrimage and Mass for an LGBT group to take place at the cathedral of his new archdiocese. The event was held the following month. Its purpose was to “celebrate” the “identity” of the attendees, who are apparently oblivious to the fact that by their persistence in degenerate sexual behavior, they have betrayed the objective truth about their sexual identity as established by God “in the beginning.”
While Tobin was unable to stay for the duration of the day’s activities, he made it a point to be on hand to welcome the pilgrims unconditionally. The active homosexuals present, including some “married” same-sex couples, were all cordially invited to partake in Holy Communion at Mass, no questions asked. So much for “accompanying” them through a process of “pastoral discernment” and conscience-formation, which must “never prescind from the Gospel demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the Church” (AL, 300). And so much for “avoiding any occasion of scandal” in conducting this little experiment in “integration” (AL, 299).
According to Tobin, for him to have challenged the pilgrims to strive to live an authentically Christian life in accordance with the objective meaning and purpose of their sexuality would have spoiled his message of unconditional welcome. Instead, he thought it appropriate “to call them who they were”–that is, to indulge their pitiful and destructive self-deception. He could always talk with them about that some other time.
Cardinal Tobin’s words and actions in this matter suggest that he has no real regard for what AL purports to advise pastorally, even though he had defended the document in the interview mentioned above. On the other hand, perhaps Tobin is actually among AL’s more “discerning” interpreters, since he has obviously pinpointed its natural trajectory and taken it to its logical conclusion. AL’s pastoral recommendations, based on its subjectivistic view of conscience and human acts, lead inexorably toward the rationalization of sin, and hence toward moral anarchy. Episcopal attempts to qualify the meaning of the document do as little to change that simple fact as the qualifications present in the document itself do.
The Maltese Bishops’ Method: Might Makes Right
The preceding illustrations of contradiction between profession and practice are not exactly isolated cases. Last January, the bishops of Malta issued guidelines based on AL’s pastoral recommendations and entirely consistent with them. The guidelines address the situation of separated or divorced Catholics who have entered a new sexual relationship. These Catholics are deliberately violating the divine Commandment against adultery, yet the bishops claim that they “earnestly desire to live in harmony with God and the Church.” The bishops claim further that “there are complex situations where the choice of living ‘as brothers and sisters’ becomes humanly impossible and gives rise to greater harm.” And so they conclude that if such persons manage, “with an informed and enlightened conscience,” to believe that they are “at peace with God” by persisting in grave sin, then they must be allowed to receive the sacraments of penance and Holy communion.
In contrast, the archbishop of Malta told seminarians who disagreed with the guidelines and, by implication, with Pope Francis, “The seminary gate is open”; that is, they can leave the seminary if they don’t want to toe the line. Malta’s priests are also being bullied into complying. But if the bishops really believe their own guidelines, and hence AL, then why don’t they respect the fact that these seminarians and priests “earnestly desire to live in harmony with God and the Church” as their own conscience prescribes? On what grounds, by their own logic, did the bishops admonish those who are “at peace with God” in thinking it right to deny adulterers admission to the sacraments? Why do these bishops, and others like them, affirm the primacy of conscience in the case of persons who persist deliberately in their moral degeneracy, but not in the case of the morally upright?
Clearly, bishops such as these are acting in an unintelligible, inherently contradictory way, which tells us immediately that something is radically wrong. Following the pope’s lead, they have assigned priority, in the moral “discernment” of human acts, to the subjective factors and circumstances affecting conscience in a concrete moral situation, rather than to the object of the deliberate will, which conscience must judge rationally as either according with or departing from the objective order of the true moral good. The suppression of an objective principle of moral evaluation renders sane, moral judgment impossible, while guaranteeing arbitrariness and lawlessness in action.
The reasons why some bishops (and their collaborators) support the dismantling of rational and revealed norms of morality seem to range from a fawning cowardice that seeks to please men (especially Pope Francis) rather than God, to the unbelieving malice of those who would remake Christ’s Church into their own worldly image and likeness. But whatever the reasons, the result issuing from their eroding or moribund faith is the same: they must object to any effort to defend rationally, in the light of revealed truth, both the traditional norms of morality–particularly the sexual norms–and the traditional sacramental practices that relate to them. In consequence, they cannot allow their subjectivistic view of conscience and discernment, nor the pastoral “mercy” that is supposed to flow from it, to apply to anyone who would dare mount such a defense.
If these bishops were to apply their theory of moral subjectivism uniformly to everyone, they would be faced with the following contradiction: Men of good will who object, in good conscience, to their subjectivistic view of discernment would themselves have had to have “discerned” their moral duty to object according to the same subjectivistic principles that the bishops claim to believe. Those principles make the individual, in the privacy of his own conscience, the final arbiter of whether his actions are morally suited to the situation. And so there can be no argument. Among other things, this would mean that the bishops would have no choice but to honor the decision of all priests and priests-to-be who have chosen to continue following the traditional practice of excluding all grave sinners from the sacraments, since this is what they have discerned in conscience that God would have them do.
But then it would not be possible for these bishops or these priests to honor simultaneously the decision of the unrepentant sinner to approach the sacraments when his conscience urges him to do so. The very inanity of the bishops’ subjectivistic view of discernment thus forces them to take sides. For if they were to allow their priests and future priests to act according to their own conscience, the inherently self-contradictory nature of their position would be exposed. And that would defeat its purpose, which is to trivialize grave sin and to justify its continuation in “concrete” situations. Once that purpose has taken root, these bishops will then be in a better position to justify more “convincingly” their call for changes in the Church’s moral teachings. They seem to think that they can effect a doctrinal makeover once they have effected the demolition of morality.
And that is why, in the end, subversive bishops such as these must defend their unprincipled principles by recourse to yet another: “Might makes right.” Contrary to what they claim to believe about the primacy of the individual conscience, they must suppress the true freedom of conscience by which morally good men adhere to the moral law, so that they can foster the false freedom of conscience by which persistent sinners justify their sins. Though “mercifully” open to tolerating a sinner’s persistent disobedience to God in “good” conscience, they brook no disobedience to themselves from morally upright, God-loving men who know, in good conscience, that it is morally inexcusable to subject human souls so blithely to the possibility of eternal ruin by downplaying or dismissing the moral gravity of their situation–to say nothing of congratulating them for it by welcoming them to the sacraments. These bishops understand that any display of conscientious objection to the destructive principles and pastoral practices that they are promoting, based on AL, would make them (and their collaborators) look bad–and rightly so.
As a result, some bishops, such as those in Malta, have issued direct and indirect threats in order to get genuinely discerning seminarians, clergy, and others to violate right conscience. Sadly, many will. But no one ever should, regardless of the consequences. For, once a clean conscience gets dirty, it must justify itself in order to live with itself. And so it just keeps on getting dirtier. That’s what the subversives are counting on. Misery loves company.
The Fernández Method: The Maradiaga Method–Plus the Rod
The conduct of the Maltese bishops toward the seminarians and clergy of Malta displayed the same contradiction with their professed beliefs about conscience and discernment that we saw displayed in the other cases we examined. While AL-inspired examples such as these are many and ever increasing, other such examples, also on the rise, include the additional element of Cardinal Maradiaga’s proactive methods of character assassination.
Last September, for example, Archbishop Javier Martinez Fernández dismissed renowned Catholic philosopher Josef Seifert from the International Academy of Philosophy in Granada. Dr. Seifert’s offense? He had dared to publish an article that highlighted, accurately, the destructive implications of AL’s untenable view of conscience. Fernández claims that Seifert’s article “damages the communion of the Church, confuses the faith of the faithful, and sows distrust in the successor of Peter.” He adds that this “does not serve the truth of faith but, rather, the interests of the world.”
Now, all those claims are very well said and wholly justified, except for one thing: Fernández is blaming the victim rather than the culprit. It is Pope Francis, not Seifert, who has sown division in the Church, confused the faithful, and damaged both his own credibility and that of his office–precisely by denying the truth of faith in a flagrant capitulation to the ways of the world. The pope has done all this largely, but not exclusively, by incorporating grave anthropological, epistemological, theological, moral, pastoral, and textual errors and distortions into AL’s chapter 8.
But there is probably something more behind Fernández’ defamatory charges and punitive action against Seifert than he is willing to admit. It turns out that in October 2016, the archbishop had announced that his archdiocese would adopt the pastoral guidelines on AL published the previous month by the Argentinian bishops of the Buenos Aires pastoral region. Those guidelines, heartily approved by Pope Francis, allow priests to admit adulterous couples to Holy Communion in some cases–presumably only after a suitable period of “discernment,” of course. So, Fernández had already sided with the position on conscience and discernment espoused by the pope, which the recent Seifert article noted, quite rightly, “threatens to tear down the whole moral edifice of the Ten Commandments and of Catholic moral teaching.”
In the final analysis, then, it would seem that Seifert’s anxious concern about the real threat that AL poses to the absolute good of God’s moral law made the archbishop look bad. Fernández had therefore to deflect attention from himself, and likewise from the pope, by demolishing the credibility of a faithful, charitable, and erudite man acting in good conscience, and out of love for both the pope and the Church. In that way, he denied in practice the understanding of conscience, accompanying, and discernment that he claims, based on AL, to believe.
The USCCB Method: Fernández Lite
Josef Seifert provides us with a real example of what it means to have a faith-informed, reasonable conscience. Thoroughly committed to objectively knowable theological and moral truth, he was impelled, in good conscience, to raise legitimate doubts about AL’s own commitment to that truth. He was surely aware of the likely repercussions of his action, for he had already been relieved of his teaching duties the year before his dismissal from the university because of an earlier critique he had written about AL. Nevertheless, he was bound to obey the urging of right conscience.
The more recent case of Capuchin Father Thomas G. Weinandy provides a similar example of fidelity to right conscience, though the backlash, while essentially the same, was expressed in a somewhat more refined way. Fr. Weinandy is a renowned American theologian and a member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission. On November 1, the USCCB, in the person of the General Secretary, encouraged him strongly to resign his position as consultant to the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine. The conversation with the General Secretary took place just a few hours after Weinandy publicized a forthright letter, dated July 31, that he had sent to Pope Francis. Weinandy resigned an hour after he was urged to do so, effective immediately.
In the letter, Weinandy enumerated his concerns about Francis’s pontificate. Those concerns include the following: (1) the pope’s studied ambiguity in AL’s chapter 8, which has fostered much error; (2) his calumnious remarks against Catholics who are faithful to authoritative Catholic tradition, and who interpret AL accordingly; (3) his seeming disregard for doctrinal truth and its relevance to concrete, pastoral matters; (4) his appointment of bishops who support and defend persons who espouse positions contrary to the faith; (5) his assault on the unity of the Church by promoting a form of “synodality” that results necessarily in a doctrinal and moral free-for-all; and (6) his intolerance of any charitable and justifiable criticism of what he says and does, thereby discouraging genuine dialogue and instilling a sense of fear.
Fr. Weinandy wrote his letter, in part, because he had accompanied many faithful Catholics who shared his concerns. So this was his way of letting them know that he had been listening. He also believed that the letter might do some good, and that God wanted him to write it. He was therefore bound, in conscience, to do so. In his letter, Weinandy expressed his love for the Church and his respect for both the office of Peter and Pope Francis himself. That seems to be what provided the initial impetus for his writing it.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the USCCB, issued a statement on the day that Fr. Weinandy was effectively canned as doctrinal advisor to the bishops. He linked Weinandy’s departure explicitly with the letter that he had sent to Pope Francis, saying that this “gives us an opportunity to reflect on the nature of dialogue within the Church.” The sudden appeal to dialogue here seems a bit strange, except to suggest that Weinandy had no business speaking his mind to the pope in accordance with right conscience. DiNardo implies that Weinandy was airing theological and pastoral “opinions” in public in a way that was not helpful. Instead, he should have spent more time finding ways to interpret the pope’s confusing and alienating statements more charitably.
Charity also requires Christians to “acknowledge that legitimate differences exist,” and that it takes the whole Church to sort through those differences so as to grow in the “understanding of God’s truth.” Apparently, Weinandy had not conducted himself in a Christian manner such as that. Rather, he had overstepped his bounds by stating the obvious on his own. It seems that according to the new rules of dialogue (and the new epistemology that they imply), “truth” is arrived at by consensus only, following a process that has incorporated everyone’s experiential take on the issues as equally valid (as long as one agrees with the desired, predetermined outcome of those who commandeer the conversation, as happened at the latrocinia, or robber synods, on which AL is based). Perhaps unintentionally, DiNardo seems to imply that, unlike the U.S. Catholic bishops, Weinandy is not standing “in strong unity with and loyalty to” the pope.
The bottom line is that Fr. Weinandy’s letter to the pope made the U.S. bishops look bad, and so they publicly rebuked him for it. (Given the speed with which the rebuke was issued, however, it does not seem as though the USCCB spokesmen sought any consensus whatsoever among the bishops in deciding on their action.) The bishops (as represented by their spokesmen) did not want Pope Francis to view them as guilty by association. But let’s give them this much: At least they saw to it that they threw Weinandy under the bus in a more gentlemanly way than Josef Seifert was.
What the USCCB refuses to acknowledge, though, is that Thomas Weinandy’s letter to Pope Francis is spot on–supported, as it is, by the objective facts of the case. He cried out truthfully: “The emperor has no clothes! Your majesty, please cover your nakedness!” In reply, the USCCB said: “That’s just your opinion. We need to invite everyone to the table and build a consensus about whether God would have us see the situation that way. Besides, His Majesty has already declared that he is finely attired, and we who are in union with him concur.” It seems that dialogue now requires that we abandon a realistic epistemology and, with it, all logic and truth.
In the meantime, the Church continues to spiral downward into a paralyzing and polarizing condition of “chronic confusion” and disunity (which some prelates continue to deny). There is confusion because there is a crisis of truth. And the crisis of truth has resulted in division–a crisis of love. In the end, this means that we are now witnessing in the Church a crippling crisis of faith, enormous in its proportions. And it is being fostered attentively from the very top. AL, chapter 8, is a key part of the present crisis.
After a long period of soul-searching, Fr. Weinandy sounded the alarm starkly yet charitably, and he got slapped down for it. So much for the respect we owe to the primacy of conscience and to the process of “discernment.” It seems that the only thing that matters is to maintain a semblance of ecclesiastical unity–a “unity” built on systematic threats, coercion, retribution, and either brutal or more sophisticated PR campaigns designed to calumniate good people. The new “truth” is that which power can get everyone to perceive as true, despite its objective falsity.
We have seen that AL’s idea of assessing, or “discerning,” the morality of human acts in conscience has effectively dispensed with the need to consider seriously, and to give priority to, objective standards of morality that are absolutely and unconditionally binding on everyone, without exception. These standards, which are fundamentally contained in the Ten Commandments, highlight our common human nature, its fallen condition, and the kind of moral life that we all can and must lead, by God’s grace, in order to raise it up to the greatness and surpassing dignity for which God created it. By giving priority instead to subjectivistic and relatively extraneous–even contrived–circumstantial considerations in “discerning” the morality of situations that flout both rational and revealed standards of morality, AL has thrown in its lot with the worldly “spirit” of radical individualism, where each person can style his own morality as he sees fit.
Especially deplorable is AL’s suggesting that someone’s tailoring his own morality to suit his own situation could be the most responsible thing he could do in conscience, depending on his subjective limitations and the circumstances in which he “finds” himself. So, while the document purports to provide principles of moral discernment, it has actually provided a sure recipe for moral chaos and spiritual shipwreck.
Ironically, AL presents the whole process of discernment (and the “accompaniment” that it implies) as a means of reconciling persistent and unrepentant sinners with God, and also with fellow Catholics, who must, for their part, welcome them “as they are” into the Church and into her ecclesial and sacramental life. As we have seen, however, AL’s false understanding of discernment, along with the imprudent and sacrilegious pastoral recommendations that are based on it, leads to an irreconcilable impasse between those who, by the grace of God, are determined to uphold God’s moral law and to live accordingly, and those who are not. There can be no rapprochement between moral order and moral disorder, between the choice to honor human dignity and the choice to debase it.
AL’s incoherent position breaks down when scrutinized in the light of the Church’s authoritative teaching, which is always intelligible and salvific. Whereas Church teaching on conscience and the moral evaluation of human acts is always applicable to all, for the true good of all, AL’s position on the “discernment” of acts caters only to deformed consciences, while also covertly deforming them. It has no relevance to Catholics who are serious about doing God’s will according to right conscience, and who have therefore no interest in contriving a rationale to explain how they might continue committing grave sin while still remaining “at peace with God.”
While a number of bishops, including former Cardinal Bergoglio, have all but ignored completely (at least in practice) laudable papal initiatives from previous pontificates, they have manifested an unprecedented zeal for propagating and implementing the incoherent, hopelessly divisive pastoral recommendations advanced in AL, chapter 8 (such as the one permitting select grave sinners to receive the sacraments). These recommendations are based on the chapter’s equally incoherent and divisive understanding of “discernment.” Whatever qualifications we might find there about the importance of bringing the Gospel and Church teaching into the “discernment” that is supposed to take place as pastors “accompany” grave sinners back into full ecclesial communion, they are being routinely disregarded by individual bishops and groups of them, in their rush to interpret the chapter as loosely as possible. AL’s false understanding of discernment provides them with just the rationale that they and their accomplices need to mainstream (or “integrate”) the sins of grave sinners into the Church. They can then use the widespread contradiction between doctrine and personal “morality” that this will swiftly bring about to justify the call–already rather loud–to overturn the Church’s traditional moral teaching.
In this spiritually polluted climate, which so brazenly violates and undermines objective truth and goodness–and so, too, right conscience–real ecclesial unity cannot possibly be sustained. As we have seen, the only way for the pope and his subversive bishops to implement AL’s diabolical agenda is to feign unity by ruthlessly intimidating, threatening, or smothering every voice that is, in good conscience, rightly opposed to that agenda. We have also seen examples of one of their favorite preemptive tactics: that of hurling at innocent people outrageous accusations whose content actually applies rather conspicuously to themselves.
But even a deplorable tactic such as that doesn’t necessarily make fully clear to us what we’re dealing with. Right now, there is a titanic, perhaps definitive struggle going on in the Church between good and evil. We are witnessing an intense, revolutionary attempt by the devil and his minions, both human and demonic, to overthrow and destroy all that Christ has willed His Church to do and to be. So it is not surprising that the rhetoric we’re hearing in the Church these days has often a Marxist cast: The Church is guilty of having treated unfairly and discriminated against this or that “class” of people–especially grave sexual sinners of one kind or another. The people in that class, it is said, have been excluded from ecclesial life, marginalized, and made to feel unwelcome. The “oppressed” classes must therefore all be “integrated” into the life of the Church, and the Church must apologize for having oppressed them in the first place.
Marxist atheism demands that the new “Church” it seeks to fashion fabricate a false god–one that doesn’t insist on the observance of reasonable moral laws that foster human dignity, especially if someone has “great difficulty” understanding, in “conscience,” their relevance to his own situation, or if he has “discerned” that they would not be appropriate to follow at this time. Better yet, this “god” can ratify in a person’s own conscience his decision to sin gravely, given his personal limitations and concrete circumstances. In the end, moral subjectivism such as this leads to the denial of the existence of any morality at all, and hence to the denial of the existence of its Author, whose “voice” will then no longer be heard speaking through the objective moral law and its reflection in conscience, which has suppressed its summons to do good and avoid evil.
In the meantime, what about those who resist the congenial new god of moral flexibility, which is really just the idol of self, animated by the prince of darkness–the archetype and ultimate object of self-worship? Saint John Paul II’s analysis of Marxism in his great social encyclical, Centesimus Annus (1991), is particularly relevant here, with little need for modification. The conflict unleashed by AL can be resolved only by “class struggle” between those who are faithful to Christ and those who oppose Him. Those who would not have Christ as their King do not restrain this conflict “by ethical or juridical considerations, or by respect for the dignity of others (and consequently of [themselves]). . . . What is pursued is not the general good of [the Church], but a partisan interest which replaces the [true] common good and sets out to destroy [whoever and] whatever stands in its way. It is a question of . . . ‘total war’”–an attempt “to impose the absolute domination of one’s own side through the destruction of the other side’s capacity to resist, using every possible means, not excluding the use of lies [and] terror tactics” (CA, 14).
It might seem a bit harsh to apply that passage to the current state of affairs in the Church and to some of her principal players. But recall that by invoking the objective and the subjective dimensions of conscience in the process of discernment and then inverting their order of priority, AL’s architects have taken a grain of truth and built it into a mountain of lies. Recall, too, that several proponents of those lies have not exactly been reserved about threatening, punishing, or voicing their disdain for those who seek to act according to right conscience, those who expose their lies in the clear light of Catholic truth, or those who ask them respectfully for a little clarity.
I would add that AL supports its position on discernment by recourse to sleazy, tendentious misrepresentations of numerous scholastic, conciliar, papal, and arguably even scriptural texts. I have given several examples of this in my other articles on AL. The violence done to these many texts–to these monuments of the Church’s Tradition–was not unintentional, nor did the corrupted versions of these texts, the passages cherry-picked from them, the false interpretations of them, or the misleading juxtapositions of texts somehow find their way into the document accidentally. They originated in the disordered will of the person or persons who selected and misused them, and they were purposely included in the document in a sorry attempt to give substance to its vacuous errors. This deplorable effort to manipulate other people’s way of thinking by appealing falsely to the Church’s tradition is not a fruit of the Holy Spirit of Truth and Love. Rather, it attests further to a collaboration between influential Church figures and the father of lies, the rebellious murderer from the beginning.
The behavior of these prelates is inexcusable. God does not deny His light and grace to those who express their love for Him and for their neighbor by steadfast obedience to His commands. I have been especially struck by that enduring truth since moving to a semi-rural area of the country two years ago. The many decent, hardworking, down-to-earth family people with whom I have become friends love God and His Church above all else. Though they have little or no formal background in the teachings of the Church, their moral sensibilities are rock solid. They are imbued with the Spirit of divine Wisdom.
Precisely for that reason, my new friends recognize that something is radically wrong today in the Church, which seems, in large part, no longer capable of identifying and denouncing sins against God’s moral law, but which would rather entrust to the conscience of the sinner the decision about whether it is necessary for him to abide by that law in his concrete situation. My friends recognize that something is radically wrong with the members of the hierarchy who have orchestrated this pathetic state of affairs and who are aggressively promoting it. By doing so, these prelates have forsaken the Church’s mission to defend the true dignity, and hence the true temporal and eternal good, of the human person. In order to be faithful to that mission, they must uphold and promote God’s moral law without compromise, admonishing Catholics–and the world–to live by that law unconditionally, starting yesterday. That is the meaning of the mandate Christ gave His Apostles just prior to His ascension (see Mt 28:16-20). But many of their successors prefer to talk dignity and integration while promoting degradation and eternal ruin. They are thus opposing the Spirit of divine Wisdom.
At least the Pharisees knew the right things to say about the Law, even if they were hypocrites in practice. But an alarming number of Catholic bishops are unabashedly denouncing both God’s moral law itself (a strong indication that they are not keeping it themselves) and those who observe and defend it (thus sullying the good name of innocent people–a violation of both the Eight Commandment and the whole Law of love). A good Catholic must therefore do neither what they say nor what they do. Their minds are dark and their fruit rotten. Together with the grave sinners whom they’ve become wont to coddle in the name of a nonjudgmental god whose “mercy” precludes eternal condemnation for unregenerate sexual sinners, these bishops would do well to recall, with the rest of us, the following salutary Scriptural warning: “Perverse thoughts separate men from God, and when His power is tested, it convicts the foolish; because [divine] wisdom will not enter a deceitful soul, nor dwell in a body enslaved to sin” (Ws 1:3-4).
. In some legal systems, this type of unpremeditated murder is termed “voluntary manslaughter” to distinguish it from premeditated murder.
. It is now clear to all that with the pope’s blessing, some bishops or bishops’ conferences have issued episcopal guidelines based on AL that are radically opposed to the Church’s teaching and her traditional sacramental practice, both of which are grounded in divine law.
. Similarly, “mercy killing” sounds much less nefarious than premeditated murder, and it seems to imply the “constructive elements” of caring and compassion. But it is actually the very antithesis of these.
. The Church has always understood the so-called exception allowing “divorce” on the ground of “unchastity” (see Mt 5:32; 19:9) as referring either to an unlawful “marriage” that is null by definition (as in the case of incest), or to the permanent, legalized separation of a couple (because of sinful sexual behavior, such as adultery), where neither person is permitted to “marry” another.
. As we just saw, the same is ultimately true also of those who supposedly have “great difficulty” understanding the inherent values of the fundamental moral precept they’re violating. They cannot but have sufficient knowledge of why their situation is sinful.
. Even if one were to grant the debatable contention that the official Latin edition of AL, which was published only last June (in the April 2016 issue of the Acta Apostolicae Sedis), has scaled back or clarified the damning passage from paragraph 303 (cited earlier) to which I am alluding here, the more favorable English translation proposed by Drs. Fastiggi and Eden-Goldstein, based on the Latin, does nothing to explain away all the other questionable and damning passages that we find in AL. In fact, the original English translation of AL, 303, even if somewhat imprecise in certain particulars, is still consistent overall with the other passages we’re examining herein, bringing them to a fitting climax, as it were. On the other hand, the newly proposed English translation of AL, 303 is not at all consistent with those passages, to say nothing of other passages appearing in the document. The new rendering is strained and does not reflect the tenor of chapter 8 as a whole. See the following: Pete Baklinski, “Yes, Amoris Laetitia 303 Really Undermines Catholic Moral Teaching: Scholar,” LifeSite News (September 28, 2017).
. Here, AL is quoting from the final report of the 2015 synod on the family. AL would have done well to seize on and develop this point, especially in chapter 8. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn’s interpretation of the chapter depends on an elaborate contradiction of the same point.
. This seems to be the type of nonsense that Cardinal Cupich of Chicago (perhaps echoing Bernard Häring) has in mind when he says that AL calls us to “an adult spirituality.” In turn, the call to this “adult spirituality” seems to be the basis of his asserting that Catholics “must let go of ‘cherished beliefs.’” Cherished beliefs about what? Most likely, Cupich is referring to the Church’s perennial belief in the absolute and universal character of the divinely revealed moral precepts, particularly in the area of sexual morality and the sacramental discipline related to it. See the following articles by Pete Baklinski: “Cardinal Cupich: Amoris Laetitia is a Call for an ‘Adult Spirituality’ Where We Discern What is True,” LifeSite News (June 9, 2017); and “Catholics Must Let Go of ‘Cherished Beliefs’ to ‘Discern’ Like Pope Francis: U.S. Cardinal,” LifeSite News (November 2, 2017).
. I am using the term “theology” in the broad sense to include not just the doctrine of God, but also Christology, Christian anthropology, sacramental theology, and so on.
. Some bishops have sought to expedite the arrival of the final phase of this scheme by insisting that AL–chapter 8, in particular–is an act of the Church’s magisterium. By insisting thus, they want to affirm that the errors promoted in AL to which critics object are indeed “official,” even as they deny simultaneously that AL has introduced any errors at all.
. See, for example, Jeff Mirus, “Pope Francis and Bernard Häring: The Literally Infernal Cheek of Dissent,” Catholic Culture (March 7, 2017), and Pete Baklinski, “Francis Praises Major Humanae Vitae Dissenter in Rebuke of ‘White or Black’ Morality,” LifeSite News (November 24, 2016). See also note 8 above.
. Hannah Brockhaus, “Pope Francis Demands Obedience from Priests of Nigerian Diocese,” CNA/EWTN News (June 12, 2017). All subsequent quotations in this section are from the same article.
. Cardinals Meisner and Caffarra died while waiting for him to respond. Of course, the pope’s nonresponse was, in fact, his response. The four cardinals had initially interpreted it–perhaps wishfully or unduly charitably–as “an invitation to continue the reflection and the discussion.” Edward Pentin, “Full Text and Explanatory Notes of Cardinals’ Questions on Amoris Laetitia,” National Catholic Register (November 14, 2016).
. See ibid.
. Staff, “Cardinal-Watch: Maradiaga Bashes Burke, as Benedict Lauds Sarah,” Crux News (May 19, 2017). All subsequent quotations in this section are from the same article.
. Of course, that would apply just as well to Maradiaga and all the other bishops; however, see Lumen Gentium, 23-25. It would be interesting to see whether Maradiaga would identify Pope Paul VI just as ardently with the magisterium relative to the clear and unadulterated teaching of Humanae Vitae.
. Claire Chretien, “‘At Best Naive’: New U.S. Cardinal Tobin Chides 4 Cardinals Over Amoris Criticism,” LifeSite News (November 21, 2016); see also, John-Henry Westen, “Rome is Buzzing with Questions on the Four Cardinals’ Objections to Amoris Laetitia,” LifeSite News (November 21, 2016).
. This particular singsong and its variations smack of the effort, under the present pontificate, to advance a radical concept of “decentralized” Church authority. The idea being floated suggests that national and regional episcopal conferences, and robber synods that include cherry-picked bishops, either have or can be granted an authority over doctrinal matters on par with that of an ecumenical council. An ecumenical council consists of a universal representation of bishops in union with, and convened by, the pope for the purpose of resolving matters of universal consequence for the Church–matters pertaining to faith and morals, and discipline as it relates to the other two. But the new concept of decentralization would allow a national or regional episcopal conference that has been hijacked by only a few to impose a particular agenda, with the claim that its decisions have a definitive, doctrinal status, to which the individual bishops and the flock within its compass must submit. At the same time, another body of bishops might decide otherwise on the same matter, requiring everyone within its compass to submit accordingly. The pope is therefore promoting the very “tribalism” for which he condemned the Ahiara priests, so that every culture or society can assert its own truth to serve its own interests. A case in point is the doctrinal and moral chaos being caused by the incompatible guidelines that various episcopal conferences are issuing on the implementation of AL. Of course, this only confirms what we know already from long experience: episcopal conferences can be totally inept at issuing, or intentionally unwilling to issue, doctrinally sound statements. The pope has no authority whatsoever to confer on these or any other merely human institutions a share in the charism with which Christ has endowed the office of Peter and the whole episcopal college united with him when they act formally to defend or interpret the deposit of faith for the good of the whole Church.
. Sharon Otterman, “As Church Shifts, a Cardinal Welcomes Gays; They Embrace a ‘Miracle,’” New York Times (June 13, 2017).
. Of course, the implications of the guidelines will inevitably be applied to other sinful contexts when expedient, and also as the moral sensibilities of both the Catholic hierarchy and the faithful continue to decline through ever increasing exposure to all the dark and sacrilegious practices to which AL has opened the door.
. Elsie Harris, “Maltese Bishops: Divorced and Remarried ‘at Peace With God’ May Receive Communion,” CNS (January 13, 2017). The subsequent quotations in this paragraph are from the same article.
. Strictly speaking, the moral life is humanly impossible for any of us to live out consistently. We require God’s grace to live it out resolutely. Sacred Scripture affirms that God does not deny His help to us when we are tempted to sin (see 1 Cor 10:13). This leaves civilly divorced Catholics with no excuse for having “remarried” and established an adulterous relationship in the first place. What is more, the Church’s doctrine on grace affirms that the observance of God’s Commandments is not impossible for those who are justified (see Denzinger-Schönmetzer, 1536, 1568). This means that the Maltese bishops have adopted Martin Luther’s position on justification by implying that even those justified and established in grace (“at peace with God” through an “enlightened” conscience) cannot keep the Commandments (i.e., cannot live as brother and sister rather than as adulterers). But given the true, Catholic teaching on justification, what these bishops have actually affirmed, unintentionally, is that Catholics persisting in their adultery are no longer just before God. For if they are finding it humanly impossible to keep His commandment, then they must have rejected the grace that He had provided to make it possible supernaturally. So, they are in a state of mortal sin, and hence (contrary to AL, 305) not growing “in the life of grace and charity.” Nor, therefore, are they properly disposed to receive the sacraments “in the midst of limits.”
. Edward Pentin, “Malta’s Archbishop: Seminarians Can Leave if They Don’t Agree With Pope Francis,” National Catholic Register (February 20, 2017).
. Pete Baklinski, “Archbishop Fires Renowned Catholic Philosopher for Questioning Pope Francis,” LifeSite News (September 5, 2017). The subsequent quotation in this section is from the same article. See also Josef Seifert, “The Persecution of Orthodoxy,” First Things (October 5, 2017).
. See the following: Carl E. Olson, “Fr. Weinandy: ‘The USCCB Strongly Encouraged Me to Resign,’” Catholic World Report (November 3, 2017).
. See the following: Edward Pentin, “Full Text of Father Weinandy’s Letter to Pope Francis,” National Catholic Register (November 1, 2017).
. Daniel N. DiNardo, “U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops President on Dialogue Within the Church,” USCCB (November 1, 2017). http://www.usccb.org/news2017/17-203.cfm
. While Cardinal DiNardo might not have intended his statement to convey this meaning, it nevertheless feeds right into the false notion of “dialogue” being propagated in the Church these days and threatening to undermine the doctrinal and moral truth with which Christ has entrusted her. AL, note 329, provides an example of just where such “dialogue”–based on the “truth” of my experience–leads. The same idea underlies the equally false concept of “decentralization” mentioned in note 18 above, where the national or regional “dialogue” of bishops and other participants supposedly results in a “consensus” about how to interpret Church teaching to suit the fancies of the particular culture or society to which they belong. We must therefore look warily, in the current ecclesiastical climate, on statements like the following: “Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it. . . . Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs” (AL, 3).
. So goes the tune that German Cardinal Reinhard Marx sang in Dublin (June 2016) regarding his take on the Church’s alleged treatment of gays, whose same-sex “relationships” he thinks the Church ought to accept–at least when the two men are “faithful.” See the following: Pete Baklinski, “Catholic Church Should Apologize to Gays, Says Papal Adviser Cardinal Marx,” LifeSite News (June 24, 2016).
by Jeffrey Tranzillo
Note: The following essay was published online by Homiletic and Pastoral Review in August 2016. Because the prepublication editing process resulted in some changes affecting the grammatical and semantic integrity of my work, I have decided to republish the original essay here with some incidental revisions.
Since the release of Pope Francis’s Post-Synodal Apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia on April 8, 2016, there have been numerous articles and statements claiming either that the pope has opened the possibility of admitting civilly divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion in some cases, or that he has left unchanged the Church’s traditional discipline of not admitting Catholics in that situation to these sacraments under any circumstances (short of their living as brother and sister when, for serious reasons, they cannot fulfill the obligation to separate). Those two opposing claims stem from the fact that the document contains real ambiguities, some dubious interpretations of its sources, and problematic formulations regarding human freedom and conscience.
While not taking a definite position on the different claims, this essay will first examine the two categories of civilly divorced and remarried Catholics with which Amoris Laetitia concerns itself. I will point out along the way some of the moral issues involved, some of the reasons for the Church’s traditional sacramental discipline, some of the values that she intends to uphold by it, and some of the problems with Amoris Laetitia’s understanding of freedom and conscience. The essay will then proceed to examine the document’s problematic understanding of conscience and other relevant matters from the standpoint of Christian anthropology. Through this investigation, we will discover that the Church’s traditional sacramental discipline is the only real way to uphold the values inherent in and signified by the divinely ordained reality and gift of marital indissolubility.
The Pastoral Concern and its Ambiguity
One of Pope Francis’s central concerns in Amoris Laetitia (hereafter AL) is to ensure that the members of the Church, especially her pastors, show a proper sensitivity to Catholics who have legally divorced their spouse and gone on to contract a civil marriage with someone else. The pope wants Catholics in that situation to be more fully integrated into the life of the Church. Toward that end, he wants their pastors to accompany them in a process of discernment, so that together they can assess the particulars of their case and thus determine their appropriate level of integration more precisely (see AL, 299).
The pope mentions several times that psychological, circumstantial, and other factors can diminish or even eliminate subjective culpability (personal accountability) in some cases where a Catholic has divorced and civilly remarried, hence the need for careful discernment. Notes 336 and 351 of the document would therefore seem to suggest that it might be permissible under certain conditions to admit the person to the sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion. That interpretation is reinforced by the fact that in the same context, the pope makes unqualified references to “sacramental privileges” and to “general rules” whose application might vary in particular cases. The “rule” in question here could therefore be taken to be the Church’s traditional discipline of not admitting divorced and “remarried” Catholics to Penance and Holy Communion (see AL, 300). What are we to make of all this?
The Main Issues
The pope seems to have two basic situations in mind. One is where a civil marriage follows the civil dissolution (the legal divorce) of a Catholic marriage whose permanent validity is nevertheless reasonably certain. The other is where a civilly remarried Catholic is personally convinced–”subjectively certain”–in conscience that the preceding, Catholic marriage was not only unsalvageable but that it had never been validly constituted in the first place. Let’s consider that situation first.
Civil marriage after invalid Catholic marriage
In the case where a Catholic has civilly remarried, suppose there really are grounds for thinking that the preceding, Catholic marriage was invalid. One has to wonder, then, why the person didn’t seek an annulment so that he or she could marry validly in the Church instead of entering straightaway into a non-sacramental, hence an invalid, civil marriage with someone else (whom we will presume, for the most part throughout this essay, is eligible for marriage). Sometimes cost, lack of cooperation among witnesses, the time it would take, or the distress it would cause are cited as reasons for not pursuing an annulment (see AL, 244). Yet, a declaration of nullity from the Church would be necessary before a Catholic in those circumstances could marry in the Church and hence validly. Why?
Because God Himself has established the marital bond as indissoluble. This demands that the Church verify carefully whether the civilly divorced person is actually free to marry before permitting him or her to marry in the Church. So it is not as though the Church were merely adhering in this matter to an arbitrary rule that she might just as well change. In fidelity to God, her whole mission is to safeguard human dignity. And where marriage is concerned, God has revealed that the dignity of spouses (and by extension, of their children) is upheld and promoted only by the indissoluble marital bond and complete fidelity to it.
When the Church is faced with the problem of civilly remarried Catholics, her obligation to determine whether any grounds exist for declaring null the preceding, Catholic marriage has a significant implication: the civilly “remarried” person’s subjective assessment of his or her earlier marital status is insufficient. Even secular law understands that we’re the worst judges of our own cases, hence the need for civil courts to help us settle legal disputes. In either instance, concrete evidence is needed to support the individual’s personal conclusion about the actual state of affairs.
Consider the following example: Five witnesses point to me as the man they think they saw bludgeon their neighbor to death in his backyard. They are all subjectively certain it was me, and they testify to that effect in court. Despite the absence of any hard evidence, I am convicted on the basis of their testimony. Yet I am innocent of the crime. Now, all five witnesses were perfectly sincere about their testimony, given in good faith. Their consciences are clear. They can sleep well at night, knowing that they have done their civil duty. But their subjective state neither corresponds to nor changes the simple fact of my innocence. In consequence, my good name has been destroyed, I have lost my civil freedom, and true justice has not been served. Nor can we rule out the possibility that the seeming sincerity of the witnesses was contrived because they had it in for me for some reason and so testified falsely against me.
Aware that personal sincerity does not alter reality and that it might even be feigned entirely, the Church has wisely understood that she cannot conclude (and must insist that her marriage tribunals not conclude) that a marriage is invalid based on the supposed sincerity of one or both of the parties involved. Concrete evidence based on a thorough investigation is needed to support that conclusion, and the absence of sufficient evidence would render that conclusion impossible. In that way, the Church stands against the injustice that would occur against one’s spouse, one’s neighbor (e.g., one’s civil “spouse”), oneself, and God when a civilly divorced Catholic goes on to contract a civil marriage based on a personal conviction that the preceding, Catholic marriage was invalid.
If the preceding marriage was not, in fact, invalid, the subsequent civil union of the Catholic would be adulterous. If it does turn out that the original marriage was invalid so that adultery is not an issue in the subsequent civil union, the “marriage” of the Catholic outside the Church would still be, by definition, invalid (since non-sacramental)–again, despite the subjective conviction of the contracting parties. One would therefore still be violating the Sixth Commandment (which the Church understands to cover all the sexual sins, fornication applying here) and so sinning against oneself, one’s neighbor, and God.
We can thus see more easily that the Church’s practice of not admitting civilly “remarried” Catholics to Penance and Holy Communion based on a merely subjective assessment of their situation is the only reasonable and appropriate way to safeguard the dignity and the vocation of marriage, both of which are rooted in marital indissolubility. In turn, defending marital indissolubility is integral to the Church’s mission both to safeguard the dignity and vocation of every human person (as an invaluable and nondisposable “someone,” summoned to everlasting life), and to give due honor and glory to God, the Author of marriage.
Civil marriage after a valid Catholic marriage
The other situation that Pope Francis has in mind is where divorce and civil “remarriage” has taken place even though the validity of the preceding, Catholic marriage is not in question. In other words, we’re dealing plainly with adultery, a clear violation of the Sixth Commandment. On the question of divorce, Our Lord made several things unequivocally clear: that it was God Himself who, from the beginning, joined man and woman in an indissoluble marital bond; that Moses’s allowance of divorce and remarriage because of the people’s hardness of heart did not accord with or alter God’s original plan but was, instead, contrary to it; and that He, the divine Lawgiver in Person, was then and there reaffirming the abiding truth of God’s plan, implying also thereby a new offer of grace to live it out. Hence, what God has joined, no man can separate (see Mt 19:3-9). That being so, a civil (or legal) divorce does nothing to change the marital status of a validly married couple. If one or both of them go on to contract a civil marriage with someone else, they commit adultery in performing the conjugal act with that person. And so do their “legal” spouses.
Now, the Church teaches that the sins encompassed by the “thou shall nots” of the Ten Commandments are destructive by their very nature: they are intrinsically evil. By committing them, we invariably act against ourselves and others. And in thus opposing the good that God intended for the personal (and the natural) order, we oppose God Himself. Violations of the Commandments can therefore never be justified under any circumstances. They can never lead us to God. The fact that we might have acted with good intentions, with ignorance of the full gravity of the sins, with limited freedom, or with a fairly peaceful conscience doesn’t change any of that.
Besides, our personal state is rarely so benign. For as the Church also teaches, the very act of committing these sins already contains within itself a disordered, perhaps even a malicious, will. One cannot enact them without knowing what one is doing and intending to do it. If I steal, I intend to take for myself what I know belongs legitimately to someone else, and I do take it. That makes me a thief. Likewise, if I am validly married and have sexual intercourse with a woman other than my wife (whether I have “divorced” my wife and married the other woman or not), I am an adulterer. Since I know what the definition of an adulterer is, I define myself as such in committing or even just intending the act (see Mt. 5:27-28), whose content and destructiveness every reasonable person can understand quite naturally, even apart from divine revelation.
Pope Francis seems to acknowledge, somewhat obliquely, that the adulterer knows what he or she is doing in committing the act of adultery: “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’” (AL, 301). As I have just indicated, any reasonable person has a basic, natural grasp of the Commandment’s “inherent values,” so it is puzzling that the pope should suggest that one could have “great difficulty” understanding them. Of course, this could easily apply to individuals who have become completely blind to the truth and goodness of those values by their persistence in the sin. And the process of discernment must be alert to that, seeking to restore the moral vision of such people. But it does not seem that the pope has such as these in mind.
Nevertheless, the pope’s statement unintentionally implies something of profound significance: the subject who has difficulty understanding the values inherent in the divine precept against adultery could not very well understand the essential nature, rights, and duties of marriage either, since a mature comprehension of the precept’s values entails a mature comprehension of marriage and its objective meaning. That being so, one would have to question seriously whether a person on whom the fundamental meaning of the Sixth Commandment is lost would even be capable of contracting marriage in the first place.[ Pastoral discernment would have to be alert to that, too. But in general, it would be patronizing to treat Catholics in adulterous unions as though they were not reasonable, as though they were capable of grasping the essence of the Sixth Commandment only gradually.
In the next part of the passage quoted above, the pope stresses that the person’s freedom to fulfill the divine command can be somehow limited or even effectively obliterated. He states that the person may “be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin.” We must admit honestly that this formulation is a huge problem. For one thing, it doesn’t account for the fact that it was the person who put him- or herself in that situation (of adultery) to begin with. If, by engaging in the sin, the person has become so enslaved to it and so enmeshed in the complexities of the ensuing situation that personal responsibility for it is mitigated, the same cannot be said of the initial decision to enter that situation. As Sacred Scripture tells us: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor 10:13).
The formulation is even more problematic in suggesting that the sin of adultery can be a means of avoiding further sin. St. Paul tells us, on the contrary, that those are justly condemned who say, “Why not do evil that good may come?” (Rm 3:8). The Church has always rejected any claim that one can use an evil means to achieve a good end (or, in this case, an end regarded subjectivistically as “less evil”). Rather, she has insisted that every reasonable person has a natural grasp of, and the binding duty to follow, the basic moral principle, “Do good and avoid evil.” Unfortunately, the pope’s statement implies, falsely, that God’s commandment is itself either the evil or the cause of the evil to be avoided in some cases of adultery. But that contradicts the Church’s ordinary and universal teaching that it is always both morally good and morally necessary to obey God’s commandments.
We must also acknowledge frankly the utter inadequacy of a formulation stating, in reference to civilly divorced and remarried Catholics, that conscience can “recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal” (AL, 303). Again, realistically speaking, we’re the worst judges of our own cases, particularly when it comes to sexual sin. What is more, the Church cannot credibly affirm simultaneously that God has revealed His will for us in the form of commandments that allow no exceptions, and that He approves their violation in individual cases and consciences. The commandments that our Creator has enjoined on us reflect the absolute goodness of His nature, which means that our observing them corresponds exactly to the goodness of ours. By obeying them, we are true to our authentic self, we confirm God’s image in ourselves, and we uphold and promote unfailingly our personal dignity and that of everyone else. So, we do have to admit that AL’s treatment of conscience in its relation to the concrete circumstances surrounding adultery is seriously flawed, leading to a position that has affinities with both situation ethics and fundamental option theory.
It is laudable that Pope Francis wants pastors to accompany “second union” Catholics (and other Catholics living in sin) in a process of discernment, with the object of leading them to grasp fully, so as fully to live, the truth of the Gospel. But there is a danger of sidestepping the central issue, adultery, when the discernment process starts placing too much emphasis on other aspects of the situation that are taken to reflect, on the part of those being accompanied, an appreciation for positive values such as how the union has become “consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self giving, Christian commitment” (AL, 298). The pope acknowledges that a Catholic in these circumstances has “a consciousness of [the union’s] irregularity,” but once again he falls into the trap of excusing this as the lesser evil, saying that the person is also conscious “of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins.”
This seems to be why Pope Francis keeps urging that discernment consider how “forms of conditioning and mitigating factors” might have converged to reduce or to eliminate the person’s subjective culpability for living in an adulterous union (AL, 305). But can the discernment process credibly result in the conclusion that some people in this category are living in a state of grace and growing in charity? The pope seems to think so (see AL, 301, 305). In consequence, the next question is this: Does AL open the possibility of admitting adulterers (and other grave sinners) to the sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion to strengthen them in grace and charity, as note 351 would suggest?
I can think of only one possible reason for answering that question in the negative. Consider that the discernment process is supposed to help Catholics in adulterous unions gauge, in the light of factors that might somehow be limiting their free decisions, how they understand presently their situation before God in conscience. At the same time, the process is supposed to lead them gradually to understand the full demands of the Gospel, particularly relative to marriage. But given the practical certainty that at least some Catholics living in a state of adultery will initially discern with their pastors that they are, at present, properly disposed to receive Penance and Holy Communion, we wind up with a senseless contradiction: the same pastors who think it appropriate to invite these Catholics to partake of the sacraments presently are also supposed to be working simultaneously toward the goal of rescinding that invitation in the foreseeable future. After all, further discernment should lead these Catholics to conclude: (1) that they have been acting unjustly toward their living spouse; (2) that they have been acting unjustly, falsely, and sinfully toward their second “spouse” in the conjugal act (if not also in other respects); (3) that they have been denying God His rights over both marriage and the married; (4) and that they are consequently not really disposed to receive the sacraments and ought therefore to stop receiving them. Such an approach to Catholics living in gravely sinful situations would be neither pastoral nor comprehensible. So, even when faced with all the ambiguities and problematic formulations contained in AL, we have still at least this one, reasonable basis for thinking (and hoping) that the pope is not obliquely advocating a change in the Church’s traditional sacramental discipline.
Whatever AL’s overall merits might be, its treatment of conscience is marked by an overly optimistic estimation of one’s own or another’s ability to discern one’s subjective culpability when in an objective state of sin involving grave matter. Such a view doesn’t square with a sound Christian anthropology. Let’s consider some biblical and theological reasons why that is so.
Biblically speaking, the human heart represents the innermost, living center of the person, in which one’s thoughts, workings of conscience, decisions, memories, imaginings, desires, feelings, emotions, affections, virtues, and vices are concentrated, and out of which they issue. It is not surprising, therefore, that Jesus tells us, “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (Lk 6:45). In other words, the person reveals by what he says or does on the outside what’s going on inside–what kind of a person, morally, he really is or is making himself to be. Thus, while the pope often speaks negatively in AL about “making judgments,” Our Lord Himself has given us an indispensable criterion for judging the moral character of other people: the kind of fruit someone bears tells us about the kind of person he is (see Lk 6:43-44). We have nothing else to go on. And that fruit speaks volumes.
As reasonable human beings, we can exercise the virtue of prudence because we can make judgments. And on the strictly human level, we can make prudent judgments only by basing them on what we can concretely see or foresee. Every good mother knows that she cannot entrust her child to just anyone. Even her best natural intuitions about other people are based on things that she has actually observed and assimilated about them, perhaps unreflectively. So she judges accordingly anyone to whom she might consider entrusting her child’s care. In telling us, “Judge not, and you will not be judged” (Lk 6:37), Our Lord is not forbidding us from making prudential judgments about others but only from judging how they ultimately stand before God and from presuming thereby to condemn them definitively. God alone knows fully and judges definitively the “heart” of man.
What are we to think, then, about an accompanied discernment of the “heart,” here meaning how someone feels in conscience about what he or she is doing? For Pope Francis wants pastors to start giving more consideration to someone’s individual conscience in assessing that person’s moral condition before God when they see that actual violations of the Commandments are the “fruit” (see AL, 303). That is, in making a moral assessment, the pope wants pastors to give less weight to what the person is doing–the fruit–than to how he or she feels about doing it.
Let’s see what the prophet Jeremiah has to say: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it? I the LORD search the mind and try the heart, to give to every man . . . according to the fruit of his doings” (Jer 17:9-10). Jesus confirmed the prophet’s inspired estimation of the human heart by refusing to trust those who claimed to believe in Him, “for He Himself knew what was in man” (Jn 2:25; see also 1 Cor 4:4; Ps 19:12). Saint Faustina Kowalska and other saints, while at a very high level of sanctity, were appalled when, penetrated by the light of Christ, they saw the miserable, hidden condition of their soul. With good reason, then, does St. Teresa of Avila urge that a soul place no confidence in itself but all confidence in God, for then the devil will not succeed in deceiving it.
So, we can be “subjectively certain” of only two things, namely: (1) God’s fidelity to us, which is a manifestation of His unfailing Love; and (2) our readiness to forsake God through sin, a sign that our love is always lacking. Given the endless capacity of the human heart to deceive itself or to welcome the devil’s deception of it, there is no possible way for us or for anyone else (short of a direct revelation from God) to have subjective certainty about where we stand before God. Many people who have resigned themselves to evil are at peace with themselves about it. The examination of conscience must therefore be based on one concrete fact: Do I or do I not obey God’s commandments fully? For God does not command the impossible. He gives us all the help we need to obey Him. In fact, His commands are not even burdensome but light (see Mt 11:30; 1 Jn 5:3).
We must not overlook the fact that it is often a measure of our own, sorry moral and spiritual state that we find the Commandments burdensome or are not keeping them at all. “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments” (1 Jn 5:3; see also Jn 14:15). That is the very condition of our entering eternal life (see Mt 19:17). If we jeopardize our own eternal salvation and that of others by breaking the Commandments together with them, what love of God, self, and neighbor is there in that?
That being so, we must avoid so emphasizing a person’s subjective take on his or her “concrete situation” that we minimize the attention due to the actual sin of commission or, for that matter, of omission. Regarding the omission of an act that we ought to perform but do not (in this context, forgoing an adulterous union), AL misinterprets an article (and others as well) from Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae (see AL, 301), giving the impression that even certain saints, though possessing all the moral virtues and abiding in a state of grace and charity, did not exercise some virtues when found too difficult. Now, Thomas surely did not envision a parallel between these saints and a person who persists in breaking one of the Commandments, and who thereby resists doing the morally good thing. Thomas’s point is that the saint does not omit the virtuous act, despite the presence, in some instances, of a contrary disposition that makes it difficult to execute the act with ease and a certain pleasure.
Here, AL does not clearly distinguish and explain the relation between the infused moral virtues and the natural virtues. The former are supernatural, ordered toward God, and exercised with an intrinsic facility, whereas the latter, though elevated to God, in their exercise, by the infused virtues (since these presuppose supernatural charity), can nevertheless extrinsically impede the exercise of the infused virtues insofar as one has not yet cultivated fully the corresponding natural virtue (e.g., that of temperance). This is what results in a contrary disposition. But saints surmount that obstacle nonetheless. And for someone in the state of grace, there is merit before God in doing the virtuous thing simply because one ought to, regardless of whether one can do it easily and take pleasure in doing it. In fact, that is both the means of overcoming the contrary disposition and a sign of one’s love for God.
So, given our proclivity toward self-deceit, a Catholic who is violating the Sixth (or any other) Commandment and omitting thereby the obligatory exercise of the opposing virtue would be unwise ever to rely on a feeling of subjective certainty that this is a generous response to God’s will. Pastors should be equally wary of that in assisting the person’s discernment. “He who says ‘I know Him’ but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 Jn 2:4). The “logic of the Gospel” (to borrow a phrase from AL, 297), and of all Sacred Scripture, for that matter, is that we really be good by doing good, not that we be subjectively convinced that we are good despite our doing evil. God judges us by our deeds. Yes, God does take into account all mitigating factors in cases of objective sin. But it would be far better for us to reject the sin than to wallow therein while taking solace in our own, inevitably partial and possibly presumptuous judgments about our actual inner state. Our eternal salvation and that of others might well depend on it.
Simply put, the doctrine of grace in AL is woefully inadequate at even the most fundamental level. If we cannot be subjectively certain about how we stand before God based on how guiltless we feel about violating His Commandments, then we can certainly not be certain about whether, despite such violations, we are in a state of sanctifying grace–the grace that keeps us in God’s friendship and out of the eternal torment of hell. The pope refers repeatedly to mitigating factors or forms of conditioning that can reduce or eliminate personal culpability for sin, concluding, “it is possible that in an objective situation of sin . . . a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end” (AL, 305). But we really must question here whether someone who is persisting knowingly in “an objective situation of sin” (again, the context refers to adultery), while appealing to his alleged subjection to mitigating and conditioning factors to justify himself, is not actually stifling and reversing his supposed growth in grace and charity, if he hasn’t already destroyed it.
While it is true that a person who is violating the Commandments might not, in the end, be damned eternally, that will not be because he or she was somehow realizing positive values by violating them with good intentions and mitigated freedom. That is quite impossible. Instead, it will be for other reasons entirely, known perhaps only to God. But we are in no position ever to presume that salvation will happen in every such case, or that it has happened or is happening in any particular case.
Simple prudence would therefore dictate that we should err on the side of caution, never presuming that someone is in the state of sanctifying grace when the person is violating one or more of the Commandments. Much less, then, should we presume to “discern” that he or she is fit to receive the sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion. Nor is one in any position to make that determination for oneself in these circumstances. To receive absolution or Holy Communion sacrilegiously would only make one’s standing before God worse. It would only increase one’s spiritual blindness, leading to further grave sins.
The one sin that got Jesus really mad was hypocrisy (e.g., Mt 23:13-36). And for a person to pretend to be in union with Him by receiving absolution or Holy Communion while still intent on breaking His Commandments is the height of hypocrisy. It is to presume that one knows better than God what constitutes good and evil in one’s life. Or, it presumes that God approves the transgression in one’s own case because of mitigating circumstances and the supposed nobility of one’s motives. And that’s nothing but a replay of the hubris behind the original sin, the point at which the “internal forum” (conscience) has become an infernal forum.
The Church teaches that no human being, not even someone who, thanks to sanctifying grace, is in a state of profound holiness, can consistently do good without the help of additional graces from God, granted here and now for each good act to be performed. These are called “actual” graces. When one is in a state of sanctifying grace, the good acts that one performs by cooperating with actual grace are supernaturally elevated by the infused virtue of charity so as to lead one to God. But God rains actual graces down on both the just and the unjust, on those who are and on those who are not in the saving state of sanctifying grace (see Mt 5:45). In other words, when those in a state of mortal sin consistently perform acts that are genuinely good as far as our earthly life is concerned, or that express real human love toward others, they do so only because God has supplied them with the grace to do so and has moved them to it.
Now, the cooperation of the unjust with actual grace might dispose them to respond favorably to subsequent graces from God that lead to their conversion, to their introduction or their restoration to the life of sanctifying grace, and to their eternal salvation. But they are not there yet. They are exhibiting only natural virtues bereft of divine charity. As Jesus observed, even pagans love and greet their own (see Mt 5:46-47). While AL does not take account of these basic elements of the Church’s doctrine of grace, Pope Francis seems to have presupposed them when he excommunicated the Italian mafia two years ago. While we might suppose that at least some mafia members are consistently loving and generous toward their own family in response to actual grace, the pope judged that their evil deeds provide sufficient, concrete evidence that they cannot be in the saving state of sanctifying grace. By implication, he judged also that any acts of love and generosity done by mafia members are taking place solely on the natural, not the supernatural, plane. Consequently, those acts have no power to unite their authors to God in charity.
One must wonder, then, why the pope seems not to recognize in AL that this same understanding of grace might also apply to Catholic adulterers who seem “sincere” about their adulterous civil unions. For we can never be sure that mitigating factors have diminished their personal culpability to the point where they are not in mortal sin. Yet for them, the pope seems to assume just the opposite, with the result that he views what might be only expressions of natural virtue (e.g., “fidelity, generous self giving”) as acts infused with supernatural charity. But then how can he presuppose this in their case and not apply the same logic in the case of at least some Catholic members of the Italian mafia? Or perhaps in the case of some Catholic fornicators or homosexual “couples,” and so on? One could just as well argue that they, too, are “subjectively certain” that they are acting generously according to God’s will for them at the moment, and that mitigating factors are at work in their situation so as to make other, more “ideal” decisions impossible. After all, people don’t do evil things because they see them as evil but because they see something good in them.
The fact is, there is simply no way for Pope Francis to argue one way for Catholic adulterers deemed sincere and another way for Catholics who might regard themselves as being equally sincere while breaking God’s Commandments in other ways. Already laying just below the surface of AL is the possible application of the pope’s argument to the two cases mentioned above (or to any other case involving grave matter). For while stating that de facto and same-sex unions “may not simply be equated with marriage” (AL, 52; italics added), he claims that there is a “certain stability” in cohabitational and same-sex “family situations” (despite all the documented evidence of instability and abuse in both cases).
Naming the Sin
Perhaps as a means of both discouraging hasty pastoral judgments and encouraging Catholic adulterers to entrust themselves to pastoral care, Pope Francis uses the benign circumlocution “‘irregular’ situation” to describe their civil unions. But by not naming the sin for what it is, he has not really addressed it. This is a form of denial. As Saint John Paul II has reminded us, the use of euphemisms tries to disguise what is really taking place, or it tries to make a sin’s gravity seem less than it is, as when abortion is called the “termination of a pregnancy” instead of what it actually is: the barbaric murder of a helpless child in the womb. Similarly, calling an adulterous union an “‘irregular’ situation” can give the impression that we’re dealing with nothing more than a technical irregularity–one that might eventually be regularized. In reality, that would be quite impossible while the real spouse is still living.
In the Bible, the ability to name something shows one’s understanding of and mastery over it (e.g., see Gn 2:19-21). Indeed, as a child learns the names of things, he or she begins to manifest an understanding of what those things are, while simultaneously gaining a greater sense of self-understanding. This allows the child to exercise a greater mastery over the objects of experience, and hence over him- or herself too. Likewise, persons who have been enslaved to one or another kind of addiction tell us that they started to experience real healing–to regain mastery over themselves–as soon as they named their addiction honestly before other people. Identifying the problem by naming it was the key to their recovery. It was a moment of truth, and the truth set them free.
So, while it seems that Pope Francis wants Catholic adulterers (and all people) to experience the joy of living the Gospel fully, he is hindering precisely that objective by keeping the virulent nature of their sin hidden behind an innocuous name. Just as one’s subjective assessment of one’s sinful condition does not change one’s actual moral and spiritual state, neither does renaming it. The only thing that can change it is conversion, living out the Commandments. The longer conversion is put off, the longer one is deprived of the healing that Jesus wants to provide. But people will have less incentive to convert if pastoral care insists on tiptoeing around the very sin that’s holding them back.
Our Lord called His followers to be the salt of the earth. That means identifying sin and denouncing it. The Church’s moral teaching and her forthright proclamation of it are expressions of her charity and integral to her mission; therefore, the true “balm of mercy” (cf. AL, 309) is the salt of Gospel truth applied charitably to the wounds of sin, so as to help people name their problem truthfully and thus awaken to their sorry plight. With God’s help, their will can then begin to assert its mastery over sin and recovery can take place. Repression leads only to depression. If both the world and the Church’s members in general are losing their taste for God–and they are–that is because Catholics are withholding the seasoning of the Gospel from their own life and from the life of others. If the salt becomes flat, so does the world.
Pope Francis’s repeated references to mitigating and conditioning factors that can diminish someone’s level of personal accountability for sin seem to constitute the main hinge on which his subjectivistic understanding of conscience rests. This does not mean that such factors don’t exist. On the contrary, the Church has long recognized the need to take them into account in evaluating human action. In the 13th century, moreover, Saint Thomas Aquinas produced the most comprehensive, penetrating, balanced, and faith-informed treatise ever written on human acts and the factors–both interior and exterior–that can limit personal responsibility for them. But in the Church today there seems to be a tendency to embrace too easily the conclusions of modern psychology in this and other areas, to the neglect of one or more aspects of the Church’s multifaceted anthropology. This cannot but skew her concept of sin, morality, and the human person.
Most of what this essay has covered so far suggests that AL suffers from that same tendency to canonize secular psychology and its subjectivistic relativism. Indeed, we have seen that the document de-emphasizes the objective dimensions of the moral act and calls into question our ability to know and understand the fundamental values that the morally good act (including the act of avoiding evil) aims to realize and protect. In that way, AL trivializes and even contravenes what God has revealed to us about these very matters. While the Church has benefited from certain contributions of modern psychology, she must nevertheless resist the temptation to receive them uncritically. For modern psychology was founded on an atheistic, and hence a radically deficient, anthropology. Whatever insights it might seem to afford us must therefore be critically assessed and corrected by, and only then integrated into, a sound, Christian understanding of the human person (as some good Christian psychologists are doing very well). Short of that, our vision of the person will become . . . well, adulterated.
Consider that “unbaptized” modern psychology will in general never understand–much less admit–that many of the neuroses, psychoses, and complexes that it identifies in people are actually the direct or the indirect effect of sin, often compounded by a repressed consciousness of sin. Instead, it gives clients strategies for dealing with their condition or encourages them to accept it wholesale and to integrate it into their personality; however, it cannot provide them with permanent healing insofar as sin is at the root of the problem. But the Church can. That is why she must in her charity be utterly forthright in her moral preaching, trusting that God’s prevenient grace will simultaneously act in the souls of her wayward children to lead them, on hearing that preaching (and if they are willing), to repentance, conversion, and the desire to receive again the sacramental means of grace that God has provided to enable them to succeed in living fully the Christian life–particularly the sacrament of Penance, so that they can name their sin before God and be forgiven it, and that of Holy Communion, to detach them from sin as they unite more closely with Our Lord. Through the conversion and healing that they receive thereby from the Divine Physician, their personalities will become more integrated so that they will have little or no need to seek the help of, or to justify their sin with the blessing of, secular psychology. Individual Christians and the Church at large would therefore do well to “mitigate” any undue fascination that they might have with unbaptized modern psychology.
The “Hard” Cases
Pope Francis reminds us that tragic situations do occur in the area of marriage and the family. He gives some emotion-laden examples: spouses who have unjustly had to endure separation or divorce, sometimes because of abuse by the other spouse; spouses who were unjustly abandoned, despite having tried to save their first marriage; and spouses who, having gone through such hardships, have entered a second union for their children’s sake (see AL, 242, 298). We must nevertheless resist any impulse to allow such situations to result in our justifying sinful solutions to difficult personal problems, however much our heart goes out to those involved.
For example, given what we learned earlier about the heart’s proclivity toward self-deception, we should not be too quick to let the idea of a civilly divorced Catholic’s “remarrying” for the sake of the children tug at our heartstrings. Despite any soul-searching that might have taken place before a person made that decision, it is perhaps more likely than not that untoward motives lurk beneath the surface. In that case, the children are merely being used as a convenient cover for their parent’s adultery.
Again, one is never justified in doing evil, such as entering an adulterous union, that good may come of it, such as seeking to secure, thereby, the good of the children’s upbringing. There is clearly a disorder of the will involved in a decision of that kind. That is why it is so disturbing that AL’s note 329 should express sympathy for it by applying to this “situation” a passage from article 51 of Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes that pertains only to validly married couples. The passage tells us that the conjugal intimacy of such a couple has a crucial bearing on both their mutual fidelity and the good of their present and future children. By implication, AL suggests that conjugal intimacy in an adulterous union would likewise redound to the good of the relationship and of the children. But it cannot and will not. The document seems almost oblivious to adultery’s intrinsically evil effects in the “hard” cases, perhaps because it prefers to focus on what it sees as “the constructive elements” of the adulterous union (AL, 292), or because it is swayed by the subjectivistic testimony of those who are committing this sin (as note 329 would seem to suggest). Aside from its misguided sympathy for civil remarriage for the children’s sake, AL has surprisingly little to say, in dealing with the “hard” cases of divorce and civil remarriage, about the genuine needs of children, or about the genuinely moral sacrifices that must be made to ensure their physical, personal, moral, and spiritual growth and well being.
In AL’s treatment of all the hard cases, the implication seems to be that the tragic circumstances, the limited freedom, and the good will of civilly divorced and “remarried” Catholics, along with the “constructive elements” of their second union, somehow converge to render their adulterous breach of fidelity relative to their first, valid marriage more acceptable and less destructive. That’s like saying that my suicidal jumping off a bridge so that there will be more food and money available for the needs of my impoverished family makes the act of suicide itself more acceptable and less destructive. My reasons for committing the act might make it more understandable, and my personal culpability for it might even be mitigated for various reasons. But none of that either justifies the act or changes its inherently destructive character. And how can an act that denies God, the Author of life, His rights over my life be, at the same time, an act of selfless generosity that is ordered to Him? Likewise, it’s quite a stretch ever to construe adultery as a generous response to God, the Author of marriage, regardless of the circumstances (cf. AL, 303).
To affirm the indissolubility of marriage in the hard cases (or in any case) and to proclaim that one must live accordingly in no way detracts from the dignity of the spouse who had been treated unjustly in a failed but valid marriage; consequently, the Church’s witness to that truth is in no way unfair to him or her. On the contrary, there is no higher affirmation of the profound dignity of that person than the Church’s infallible and unchangeable teaching on marital indissolubility–the teaching of Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. It affirms that one is a free and intelligent creature made in God’s image–a person–whose freedom is so great that it allows one to will into existence a permanent state of being (here, the married state) by a firm, conscious intention to make a binding vow in the very act of making it.
That is a far cry from affirming, if only tacitly, someone’s sufficiently free decision to engage in the gravely sinful behavior of adultery, which is invariably destructive, unjust, and degrading–good intentions or mitigating factors notwithstanding. We need to take our freedom and inherent dignity as seriously as God does, for our ability to make free, permanently binding decisions is the basis of our moral life, which will, in turn, determine whether we spend eternity in heaven or in hell. It is precisely this understanding of the human person that the Church’s traditional discipline of not admitting civilly divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion makes luminously clear.
In this essay, I have had to acknowledge quite honestly that Pope Francis’s Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, contains ambiguities, problematic formulations, and questionable textual interpretations that have led many to wonder whether the document intends to open the possibility of admitting at least some civilly divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion. I have shown that any such intention would expose the document as being both incoherent and pastorally insensitive in that regard.
It seems that many of AL’s problems stem from its subjectivistic view of human conscience, coupled with its undue confidence in just how accurately, with the help of modern psychology, we can evaluate our own or someone else’s level of personal culpability for serious sin. The document’s subjectivism entails less obvious anthropological misunderstandings, some of which we have examined from a biblical and a theological perspective. In the course of doing so, we have seen that the questionable presuppositions behind the pope’s inclination to view the moral and the spiritual state of some Catholic adulterers in a rather benign light cannot be restricted to those persons alone, either in principle or in practice. The implications of his pastoral outlook therefore threaten in a real way the whole edifice of Catholic moral teaching. In consequence, further refinement of his approach to the otherwise laudable effort to encourage pastoral outreach and the strengthening of the family is necessary.
I have noted in this essay that the import of Our Lord’s teaching on marital indissolubility extends far beyond the divinely established institutions of marriage and the family, though it is most profoundly realized and exemplified therein. After the Cross itself, marital indissolubility, in both principle and practice, is the premier sign of the eternal love-worthiness of every person as someone made in God’s image. Since our vocation to love others accordingly implies our power to do so (assisted by divine grace), marital indissolubility also points to our personal capacity to be absolutely faithful in fulfilling our duties and commitments toward them, even to the point of sacrificing our own life for them. In that way, it expresses how profound is the gift of our freedom, by which we can dedicate ourselves permanently to seeking and actualizing the true good of our neighbors, for love of them and of God above all. Marital indissolubility reminds each of us thereby that we are moral creatures whose free decisions and actions determine our eternal destiny for good or for ill, depending on whether our deeds incarnate true goodness, justice, and mercy toward ourselves and others.
In these and other ways, marital indissolubility, as a divine teaching and as a vocation well lived, fosters, protects, and epitomizes the dignity and vocation of every human being as one called by God to love others unconditionally for their sake, and to be loved unconditionally by them for one’s own sake. The minimum measure of our mutual love is our faithful observance of all the Commandments. By reflecting thereby God’s gratuitous and unconditional love for us, we are simultaneously expressing together our love for God, in whom alone our vocation as human persons is ultimately fulfilled, both now and forever.
Given all this, we can now understand that naming the sin of adultery in pastoral practice and maintaining absolutely the Church’s traditional sacramental discipline in every case of Catholic adultery is not an indictment against the persons committing this sin but an unequivocal sign to them and a reminder to everyone that their state cannot but undermine all that is most human and personal in themselves and others, regardless either of circumstances or of sincere intentions to the contrary. By recognizing this and acting accordingly, pastors are doing nothing less than contributing to the Church’s mission of safeguarding the dignity and sanctity of marriage, of the married, of the family, and of every human person.
 E.g., Gn 2:21-24; Mt 19:3-9; Eph 5:21-33.
 Note that adultery has also the character of thievery, by depriving one’s own spouse of his or her exclusive right to conjugal intimacy with oneself, and also, in some instances, by taking to oneself the spouse of another. God, too, is robbed of His just due as the Author and Sanctifier of marriage, and as the Source of human dignity, so grievously violated in the act of adultery.
 The position adopted in AL suggests that we can in some cases interpret our adulterous situation through the lens of our subjective experience of it, and thereby validate it. This outlook fails to take seriously just how radically the lens of experience has been distorted by sin and our habituation to it, which is precisely why we require the corrective lens–the objective standard–of revealed truth to interpret our experience properly and to direct our moral actions accordingly. At the very least, we need to train our focus on the natural moral law and to abide by it. Short of that, we will wander blindly into the abyss of moral relativism.
 Saint Francis’s initial repugnance at lepers did not keep him from giving them alms through an intermediary. But he eventually conquered that repugnance to the point of embracing the lepers while making his offering personally. His charitable resolve to perform the virtuous act, even when it was difficult for him, led to the increase in charity by which he was able to do it with ease and a genuine pleasure, for love of God and neighbor.
 In fact, he twice quotes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church to substantiate his point. Curiously, in quoting from paragraph 2352 (which quotes, in turn, from section IX of the CDF’s Persona Humana), he excludes an extremely relevant passage: “The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of [a valid] marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.” Adultery (or any other misuse of sex) cannot therefore be credibly regarded as a legitimate default mode of the sexual faculty.
 The same has happened whenever Christians have tried to conform the data of revelation to questionable philosophical systems or scientific speculations. It’s a sure recipe for both heresy and the degradation of the human person.