by Jeffrey Tranzillo
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.
by Jeff Tranzillo
I began my previous essay by describing some of the main principles of Catholic moral revisionism. I then proceeded to demonstrate that those same principles underlie the concept of “discernment” promoted in Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the family. In particular, we saw that the pope bases his concept of discernment on a revisionist understanding of conscience and of the moral evaluation of the human act. It is hardly surprising, then, that he understands the process of discernment in the same, subjectivistic way that the revisionists do. Since moral relativism follows inevitably from that perspective, the pope, like the revisionist theorists he so admires, is loath to acknowledge outright that certain moral actions are unconditionally evil by their very nature. Such moral indecisiveness leads logically to a general denial of the absolute, universally binding character of the Ten Commandments, though Amoris Laetitia takes aim explicitly only at the sixth one. We thus have the pope supposing it a matter of little moral consequence that some Catholics intend to persist in “situations” of grave, sexual immorality, since “discernment,” in his view, can determine that their conscience is “sincere” about what they are doing.
Given the morally and spiritually reckless nature of the pope’s supposition, together with the deadly, far-reaching implications of its destructive premises, I would like, in this essay, to probe further into what reasons Pope Francis might have for having adopted the revisionist approach to pastoral discernment. In the main, I will limit myself to what we can gather from the internal evidence provided by Amoris Laetitia itself. We will begin with a discussion about the classification of the document, in an effort to gauge its authoritative status. Does it purport to be pastoral or magisterial? What grounds, if any, does the document actually provide for placing it in either or both of those categories? Presupposing the content of my previous essay, we will next ask ourselves why the pope has embraced Catholic moral revisionism in Amoris Laetitia. The most apparent answer is that he wanted to establish a pretext for the unprecedented move of allowing Catholics in at least some situations of objectively grave sin to receive the sacraments of penance and Holy Communion. But on examining the criteria that the pope wants pastors to follow in making that allowance, we will see that his “pastoral” plan of accompaniment and discernment makes absolutely no pastoral sense, as he must surely be aware. We have, therefore, ample reason to be concerned that his plan, while internally illogical, follows another kind of logic, whether he is aware of it or not. That logic would lead to nothing less than the complete demolition of the Church’s doctrinal patrimony, and hence of the Church itself, were that possible. We will see that the subjectivism inherent in AL’s moral revisionism and in the document’s uncritical appeal to modern, secular psychology is the engine driving its inexorable logic of destruction.
Amoris Laetitia: Pastoral Counsel or Magisterial Act?
At first glance, Pope Francis’s intention in publishing Amoris Laetitia (hereafter AL) seems to have been purely pastoral. In the document’s introduction, he tells us that one of his goals is to “highlight some pastoral approaches that can guide us in building sound and fruitful homes in accordance with God’s plan” (AL, 6). Chapter 6, in particular, is devoted exclusively to the pastoral needs of the family. In general, the pastoral approach appears to some degree throughout the whole document.
Also in the introduction, the pope tells us, in an apparent reference to chapter 8, that he “will offer an invitation to mercy and the pastoral discernment of those situations that fall short of what the Lord demands of us.” An “invitation” to (seek? provide? receive?) mercy and pastoral discernment can hardly be considered magisterial. Nor can the pastoral “considerations” that the pope outlines in the chapter, and that he recommends be incorporated into “the teaching of moral theology” (AL 311). Notice that he distinguishes here between moral theology as such and his pastoral considerations regarding the practice of discernment, together with its bearing on sacramental practice. Matters relating to moral theology pertain to the Church’s magisterium, but they are not here being addressed. Pastoral considerations are being addressed, but they do not pertain to the Church’s magisterium.
That said, another of the pope’s stated goals is to “recall some essential aspects of the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family” (AL, 6). A papal reaffirmation of Church doctrine would certainly qualify as magisterial. While the pope does not specifically state anywhere an intention to solemnly reaffirm Church teaching, he does, in fact, “summarize” basic teachings of the Church’s ordinary and universal magisterium on marriage and the family, seeking in that way, together with the Synod Fathers, to “pass on the Gospel of the family” (AL, 60). And that suffices for us to regard those parts of AL as a current act of the magisterium.
At the same time, his summary of Church teaching on marriage and the family has a decidedly pastoral cast. There are good reasons why that should be so. But it was particularly important to Pope Francis that he frame his summary in a pastoral way because of the moral aspect of the teaching it contains. For he regards any presentation of the unvarnished moral truth–of God’s Commandments, in particular–as tantamount to “indoctrination,” which he believes turns the Gospel message into “dead stones to be hurled at others,” so that they feel “judged and abandoned” by having “a set of rules” imposed on them (AL, 49. See AL, 305).
A more significant question about AL’s magisterial status arises when we consider that the pope’s pastoral “considerations” in chapter 8 are based on a subjectivistic, revisionist understanding of conscience, of how to evaluate the moral character of human action, and of the nature, scope, and authority of the divine precepts themselves. These topics are doctrinal in themselves. As such, they would ordinarily pertain to the Church’s magisterium. But Pope Francis’s understanding of them is seriously flawed. Providentially, it does not seem as though he has proposed his flawed understandings, which official Church teaching does not support, as a matter of faith in any formal way. He does, however, deny rather clearly that neither the Sixth Commandment, nor the divinely grounded precept that forbids Catholics persisting in grave sin from being admitted to Holy Communion, applies to everyone, everywhere, at every time, and in every concrete circumstance. That is a huge problem. For now, let’s just say that the pope is not actively promoting but simply utilizing a revisionist understanding of certain teachings from moral theology so that he can contrive a rationale for urging pastors, and the whole Church, to adopt his “pastoral” approach to certain Catholics in situations of serious sin. Any pastoral recommendation or any pastoral approach is essentially going to involve personal discretion in relation to, or exercised under, provisional circumstances; therefore, it is not a magisterial matter by definition. On the contrary, it is subject to error.
And yet, according to Cardinal Schönborn, whom Pope Francis had selected to introduce AL to the world, the document “is obviously an act of the magisterium,” and the pope is there exercising his role as “master and teacher of the faith.” In fact, Schönborn regards AL as “the great text of moral theology that we have been waiting for since the days of the [Second Vatican] Council.” That last statement is rather striking for two reasons. For one thing, it challenges the judgment of well-informed, faithful Catholics everywhere, who would justifiably–and far more realistically–regard Veritatis Splendor (1993), Saint John Paul II’s great, ever true and relevant encyclical on the foundations of moral theology, as “the great text of moral theology” following the Council. Secondly, while we can grant that AL covers some doctrinal ground, the general tenor of the document is clearly on the pastoral side. The pope himself seems to see it that way. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that throughout problematic chapter 8, he describes the “considerations” that he presents there as “pastoral,” while simply presupposing the dubious doctrinal means by which he arrived at them. Though Francis urges that the teaching of moral theology take account of his pastoral considerations, he does not thereby treat them as theological in their own right. It is therefore strange that those same “considerations” should constitute the main focus of Cardinal Schönborn’s vigorous attempts to define AL as essentially magisterial.
While Schönborn’s assessment of AL is considerably overblown, it is nevertheless true that the document does contain some doctrinal elements. As several authors have noted, however, AL makes no reference whatsoever to Veritatis Splendor, which treats specifically and very precisely some of the same doctrinal matters that AL takes up, particularly as regards conscience, the moral evaluation of human acts, and the nature, scope, and authority of the Commandments in moral decisions bearing on concrete situations. John Paul II wrote his encyclical with the express purpose of setting forth “the principles of a moral teaching based upon Sacred Scripture and the living Apostolic Tradition.” To be more specific, he reaffirmed with “the authority of the successor of Peter . . . the universality and immutability of the moral commandments, particularly those which prohibit always and without exception intrinsically evil acts.” He did this in relation to “the fundamental values connected with the dignity of the person and the truth of his acts,” so as to establish “the principles for the pastoral discernment necessary in practical and cultural situations which are complex and even crucial.” Having invoked his supreme apostolic authority as Peter’s successor, Pope John Paul II made it clear that his treatment of this theme represents a solemn, infallible act of the Church’s magisterium. The faithful are therefore bound both morally and religiously to regard it as such.
The foregoing summary of the main theme of John Paul II’s encyclical reveals the disturbing reason for the conspicuous absence of any mention of his authoritative document in AL: Veritatis Splendor rejects the revisionist subjectivism by which Pope Francis has sown the deadly seeds of moral relativism into his own document.
In view of our preceding considerations, what can we conclude about the documentary class into which AL falls? To begin with, chapters 3-5 contain some good statements on marriage and the family that we can safely regard as falling within the domain of the ordinary and universal magisterium. The document also contains some good pastoral counsel, but some, too, that is not so good because of wide variations in specificity, clarity, and prudence, or because tainted with subjectivistic, secular psychology. Nevertheless, when we view the document as a whole, it seems to have more a pastoral than a doctrinal character.
Where chapter 8 is concerned, we are dealing with gross pastoral imprudence based on insidious doctrinal error, to say the very least. AL is therefore neither pastoral nor magisterial insofar as it sets forth novelties incompatible with the Church’s apostolic teaching and with the true good–flowing from that teaching–of each human person, each human family, and the human family as such. Again, it is AL’s novelties that Cardinal Schönborn (among others) lauds and defends as being magisterial; however, it is precisely in relation to them that AL is obviously not an act of the magisterium.
There is certainly nothing truly pastoral about the pope’s recommendation, in chapter 8, to allow “some” Catholic fornicators and adulterers to receive the sacraments. Their present unwillingness to live their life according to God’s moral law already entails, necessarily, a corresponding lack of repentance for their disobeying that law. In consequence, the hypocrisy of their approaching the sacrament of penance or of Holy Communion would only add to the gravity of their sin (see 1 Cor 11:29). For the pope even to urge, without explicitly mandating, that pastors invite these (and, by implication, other) select sinners, nonetheless, to approach the sacraments manifests an inexcusable blindness to what constitutes the true good of their souls. It also manifests an egregious disregard for the Church’s moral teaching, for her teaching on marriage and the family, for authentic human dignity, and for the unchangeable ecclesiastical law governing sacramental practice. Because the pope’s counsel on this matter is utterly devoid of prudence, the directives by which he urges that it be incorporated into the teaching of moral theology and adopted in pastoral practice cannot bind conscience in any way. On the contrary, faithful Catholics–lay, clergy, and religious alike–are obliged to reject and disregard those directives completely.
The faithful are also obliged to reject the false premises and statements on which the pope’s “pastoral” prescription is based, whether doctrinal or otherwise, since all falsehood is antithetical to human flourishing and to the very dignity of the person. Once again, it is obvious that doctrinal error does not qualify as magisterial, opposing, as it does, the truth of the Church’s perennial, apostolic teaching. Her mission and her very existence depend on her fidelity to that teaching, which alone protects, upholds, and promotes true human dignity and the true good of the family.
Pending our further considerations, let us conclude, for the moment, that AL contains both magisterial and pastoral elements that we can accept as such, but that it also contains elements that we are bound to reject as neither magisterial nor truly pastoral. Despite the somewhat unsatisfying nature of that conclusion, one thing is luminously clear: For all the euphonious talk by Cardinal Schönborn and other propagandizing prelates about “the continuity of the doctrinal principles”–as though AL’s lip service (and theirs) to official Church teaching on marriage and the family is sufficient to safeguard that teaching in the face of the document’s “discontinuity of perspectives”–AL includes and instigates, on the contrary, a radical break in the continuity of authentic magisterial teaching, and therefore with the Church’s unchangeable tradition itself. Given that plain fact, for Schönborn to insist that AL is “an authentic teaching of sacra doctrina” in precisely that respect is tantamount to his insisting that the Church’s apostolic teaching can be changed, and that Pope Francis has, in fact, changed it.
Because AL’s novel teachings (which purportedly warrant its changes in the sacramental discipline) have not developed organically out of prior Church teaching, they represent, by definition, a corruption of revealed truth. As a result, when Cardinal Schönborn asserts that all prior magisterial teaching on the family must be interpreted in the light of AL, he is demanding, in effect, that the perennial meaning of that teaching be falsified. Limiting ourselves, for now, to what we can gather from the content of AL itself, we have to ask ourselves: Why did Pope Francis sign off on a document that includes substantial discontinuity with, and that is thereby inimical to, the Church’s authoritative, binding teaching?
The Incremental Sacking of Sacramental Discipline
As we saw in my previous essay, Pope Francis likes to emphasize that the presence of subjective and circumstantial factors can mitigate the personal culpability of at least some Catholics for their disobeying the “general rule”–that is, the Sixth Commandment. For example, he asserts that some adulterous or fornicating Catholics find it too difficult to understand the rule’s “inherent values,” while for others, the concrete situation “does not allow” them “to act differently and decide otherwise”–that is, to obey God’s Commandment–“without further sin” (AL, 301, italics added). Despite the dubious nature of the first assertion and the decidedly blasphemous nature of the second, the pope concludes on this basis that Catholic transgressors of the Sixth Commandment might still possess sanctifying grace. It follows that this must all be true also in other pastorally approved instances of rebellion against God’s moral law.
One might easily get the impression that Pope Francis is personally inclined to dispense some Catholics from the absolute moral obligation to obey the Sixth Commandment (e.g., AL 300), presumably only after “discernment” has divined that they still abide in a state of sanctifying grace as they persist in grave, sexual sin; however, since he has no authority whatsoever to act thus, what he does instead, in effect, is to “grant” that authority to the individual conscience, suggesting–again blasphemously–that God Himself sometimes issues the dispensation therein, at least for the time being (see AL, 303). Once Catholic adulterers or fornicators have “discerned”–with this bit of encouragement from the pope and other like-minded pastors–that they are transgressing God’s revealed moral law in good conscience (that is, with God’s approval), “the consequences or effects of a rule need not necessarily always be the same” (AL, 300; see AL, 302). What rule is Francis alluding to here? He means the “rule” that forbids those who persist in grave sin from receiving the sacraments of penance and Holy Communion. In his opinion, the “sacramental discipline” need not apply in every case, “since discernment can recognize that in a particular situation no grave fault exists” (AL, n. 336; see n. 351).
So, the immediate answer to our question as to why Pope Francis contravened authentic Church teaching in AL is that this helped him contrive a seemingly credible pretext by which to open the door to admitting Catholics persisting in grave sin to the sacraments. As he set about opening that door, he reminded us of the distinction between objective sin and personal culpability, referencing–in one of AL’s many tendentious textual misrepresentations–paragraph 2 of a declaration by the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Concerning the Admission to Holy Communion of Faithful who are Divorced and Remarried (June 24, 2000). Though the declaration comes to a negative judgment about the possibility of allowing adulterers to be admitted to Holy Communion, the strategic placement of its title in AL’s notes would suggest that the text confirms Francis’s own conclusion to the contrary.
The fact is, the text says that canon 915, which denies Holy Communion to those in grave sin, must be understood as follows:
1) the gravity of the sin involved is determined by the sin’s objective nature–in this case, adultery;
2) the person is persisting in the objective state of grave sin; and
3) the sin is publicly manifest, causing objective harm–scandal–to the ecclesial communion.
The declaration also tells us that the prohibition found in canon 915 “is derived from divine law and transcends the domain of positive ecclesiastical laws: the latter cannot introduce legislative changes which would oppose the doctrine of the Church.”
The document is addressing authors who, while acknowledging that Familiaris Consortio, 84, (among other official Church texts) affirms unequivocally the canonical prohibition against administering Holy Communion to persons persisting in objectively grave sin, would still presume to exclude civilly divorced and remarried Catholics from the canon’s purview. Cardinal Schönborn goes even further: he claims that in Familiaris Consortio, 84, Pope John Paul II had implicitly opened the door to making that exception by his distinguishing between various situations of adultery and his urging pastors to exercise careful discernment in the light of the internal forum. Schönborn thus tries to “credit” the saint with setting the stage for Francis’s “evolution,” or substantial change, in the understanding and application of the divine and unchangeable law of the Church; however, since no pope has the power to legislate a change in an ecclesiastical discipline grounded in divine law, Francis slips it in just the same by packaging it as mercy applied through pastoral solicitude. Apparent qualifications notwithstanding, the pope’s “pastoral” prescription amounts to nothing less than a blank check allowing pastors to invite anyone they please to receive the Blessed Sacrament, regardless of how dissolute his way of life or how contrary his beliefs to authentic Church teaching.
Even as AL pays lip service to the Church’s doctrine on marital indissolubility (e.g., see AL, 62, 77, 123), it simultaneously undermines that same doctrine by proposing the morally and ecclesiastically illicit–though purportedly “pastoral”–practice of admitting some adulterers (and other grave sinners) to the sacraments. This is implicitly, even if unintentionally, also an attack on Christ Himself, who, both as God and as God incarnate, established the unchangeable nature, purpose, and conditions of marriage, and who charged the Church with the responsibility of defending marriage and of reflecting its essential attributes in her own relationship with Him. Since the pope’s pastoral recommendation is both contrary to ecclesiastical law and logically inane, the fact that he still exerts such an effort to justify it (using his revisionist view of conscience, human acts, and discernment) suggests that the change in the sacramental discipline is not AL’s ultimate aim, but only a means to some other end.
Before we consider what that end might be, let us look briefly at just how inane the pope’s pastoral recommendation really is. Francis wants the subjective take of adulterers (or other grave sinners) on their situation and their moral state to sideline any meaningful attention to what they’re objectively doing wrong. By default, therefore, their personal perspective on the moral magnitude and the moral consequences of their sin, once confirmed by their pastoral co-discerners (should the sinners or their pastors feel that this confirmation is even necessary), will determine whether they can be admitted to the sacraments. Clearly, the pope expects that they should be admitted, but supposedly only in cases where they satisfy certain conditions (e.g., see AL, 300).
At the same time, the aim of the pastoral discernment process is, ostensibly, to get these sinners to recognize and to accept “gradually” the full truth and demands of the Gospel relative to their situation. So, once they have achieved sufficient clarity, they would see that, in violating the sixth Commandment, they are committing grave sins against God, self, and neighbor. They would see that, apart from a real amendment of life, they are not properly disposed to receive the sacraments. And if they had already been granted access to the sacraments, they would see that they are obliged to approach them no longer, while their pastors would be obliged to rescind their previous invitation to receive them. This makes no pastoral sense at all. Nor, therefore, is it a particularly compassionate and merciful approach to sinners. We must wonder, then, why Pope Francis would frame this approach in such a positive light.
What is more, all of the pope’s talk about the responsibility of pastors to lead adulterers (or other grave sinners) gradually to the objective demands of the Gospel rings hollow when we find him contending simultaneously that God is assuring some such sinners, in conscience, that He is asking of them just the opposite in their situation (see AL, 303). In a similar vein, if the pope’s contention is true that the faithful are often responding “as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations” (AL, 37), then what is the point of his talking about pastoral co-discernment in the first place? What is left, except for the pastor to shrug his shoulders and say, “Well, who am I to judge, since you are sincerely striving to do God’s will?” Again, there is no logical consistency here.
The Domino Effect: From Pastoral Absurdity to Doctrinal Destruction
So, we have to ask ourselves: Why did the pope propose a “pastoral” approach to adulterers (and other grave sinners) that is so obviously incoherent, and whose rationale, based on the principles of moral revisionism, only adds to its incoherence? Was this simply a convoluted and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to justify his wholly unprecedented and illicit, de facto change in the Church’s sacramental practice? The open-ended nature of the attempt–that is, its wide-ranging applicability and implications–suggests that the pope might have some ulterior purpose in mind. To help us “discern” what that purpose might be, let us consider the opinion of Bernard Häring’s disciple in dissent from Catholic moral teaching, Catholic moral revisionist Charles E. Curran.
The Basic Strategy. In an interview with the National Catholic Reporter (November 21, 2014) following the first synod on the family in October 2014, Curran suggested that the pastoral approach can lead to more fundamental theological discussions about the “very practical moral problems that people are experiencing.” In that way, it “can be a foot in the door, which then might lead to a much greater opening of the door.” And what door is that? He means the door leading “toward a change on the doctrinal level.” Curran has insisted for years that “it is necessary for the papacy to admit that some of its present teachings on sexuality are wrong.” As he continues to look toward the day when the pope will vindicate his persistent rebellion against God’s moral law, Curran remarks cautiously that “only time will tell whether or not [the pastoral approach] is a way to bring about a change in the teaching.”
Is Pope Francis trying to expedite the arrival of a time that would see Church doctrine change substantially? We have good reason to think so. For one thing, it is clear that he has bought wholesale into the system of moral demolition known as Catholic moral revisionism. Indeed, his effort to justify a sacrilegious change in the Church’s longstanding sacramental discipline by sidestepping divine law in favor of a more “pastoral” approach to “complex” moral situations and personal experiences is entirely consistent with Curran’s idea of how to go about instituting radical changes in the Church’s moral teaching.
Last November, moreover, Francis praised Curran’s mentor, Bernard Häring, for having found “a new way to help moral theology flourish again.” Not surprisingly, one of the main pillars of Häring’s “new way” is “discernment,” which in practice means identifying the voice of conscience with one’s irrational appetites, “lifestyle” choices, and self-justifications–that is, with one’s narcissism–so as to flout God’s revealed moral law and do whatever one pleases, while feeling good about it. It means arrogating to myself the power to disregard all legitimate moral authority, even that of God, so that no one can tell me, contrary to what I want to do, what I ought or ought not to do. It means allowing pride to convince freedom that it is unbounded, absolute, divine. And that is the inexorable trajectory of the concept of discernment that we find in AL, which might consequently have better been named Peccatoris Laetitia.
Implementing the Strategy: ”Integration” and ”Gradualism.” It is one thing for the pope to encourage pastors to accompany sinners patiently so as to bring them to conversion in Christ. The saints going back to St. Paul have always done that, and so have good pastors in every time and place. When dealing with certain “complex situations,” however, the pope goes out of his way to understate the objective gravity of transgressions against the Sixth Commandment. These sins he regards merely as “situations of weakness or imperfection” (AL 296). He thus positions himself to recommend offering the sacraments to the “weak” or “imperfect” to strengthen them (see AL, n. 351).
What is more, he insists that “weakness” must be “integrated” into the Church. Examples of integrated weakness abounded in the Church even before the publication of AL, with active homosexuals distributing Holy Communion, pro-abortion politicians joining them in receiving it, “disenfranchised” religious sisters proclaiming the Gospel at Mass, dissenting Catholics running or teaching in CCD, adult faith formation, pre-Cana, and RCIA programs, and so on. It is hardly a stretch, then, to expect that AL will be cited as mandating a more widespread institutionalization of these and other unseemly forms of “integration,” its ostensible qualifications to the contrary notwithstanding (e.g., AL, 297, 299). And it doesn’t seem as though Francis is particularly inclined to discourage such abuses.
To put it another way, Pope Francis expects the Church to cater to grave sinners on their own terms, for he presumes that they are only “gradually” capable of integrating God’s Law into their understanding and way of life (see AL, 295, 300). It is beyond doubt that when Saint John Paul II described the “law of gradualness” in Familiaris Consortio, 34, he never intended it to be applied in such a way. For one thing, John Paul mentioned it there specifically in relation to validly married couples, making it clear that these couples must live out God’s moral law in their marital life. This law “reveals and sets forth the plan of God the Creator,” that is, “God’s wise and loving design.” While John Paul acknowledged that couples are called to grow in their knowledge, love, and realization of the moral good expressed in God’s law, he also emphasized that they cannot regard that law “as merely an ideal to be achieved in the future: they must consider it as a command of Christ the Lord to overcome difficulties with constancy.” That is to say, they must overcome marital problems by remaining faithful to the moral order that God established for both their temporal perfection and their eternal happiness. They do that by conforming their conscience and their life to the Church’s moral teaching, regardless of the difficulties this might entail: “Sacrifice cannot be removed from family life, but must in fact be wholeheartedly accepted if the love between husband and wife is to be deepened and become a source of intimate joy.”
It is in this light that we must read John Paul II’s brief remarks on gradualness in Familiaris Consortio, 9, which he makes in a broader context encompassing civilization itself. Christian moral growth takes place gradually within a conversion that has already taken place. One is then personally determined to fulfill God’s law ever more perfectly by God’s grace. This entails the ongoing formation of the moral conscience. The larger society will be converted gradually only insofar as Christian families act as the leaven “through a conversion of mind and heart, following Christ Crucified by denying our own selfishness.”
In the use that AL makes of these texts in chapter 8, however, the meaning of gradualism, in its relation to accompaniment, discernment, and integration, has been misconstrued to reinforce the idea that the Church needs to coddle grave sinners in the name of mercy because their situations are somehow more complex and more beset by difficulties and mitigating factors than everyone else’s. Here, it is not a question of Catholics who are sincere in their resolve to obey God’s command and yet lapse into sin, perhaps frequently, out of moral weakness. Rather, AL applies the law of gradualness to Catholics who are firm in their resolve to persist in their sin. The confusion resulting from this mutilation of meaning, together with its use as a rationale for admitting adulterers and other grave sinners to Holy Communion, has already created a fissure in the Barque of Peter that seems calculated to lead to an ever widening scope of de facto breaches between the Church’s traditional moral teaching and her sacramental practices.
Once sacramental practice effectively contradicts moral teaching on a wide scale, the claim that the latter is out of step with the former and with the “evolution” of human nature and beliefs (which are sure to become corrupted more quickly by constant exposure to strange and unseemly sacramental practices and other “pastoral” gestures) will sound increasingly “credible.” The “concrete reality” of this situation will then be invoked to demand that the Church’s moral teaching change. So, in the final analysis, Pope Francis’s “integration of weakness” into the Church is nothing more than the mainstreaming of sin, aimed at turning the tide of “public opinion” against those who are upholding the Church’s moral teaching and toward those who are agitating for doctrinal change. These latter can then avoid more easily the charge of formal heresy that they so richly deserve.
At a Loss for Truth
Let us now consider more specifically the engine behind AL’s drive toward doctrinal destruction. The main source of the document’s doctrinal errors and impoverished pastoral counsel is its radical subjectivism, which inevitably leads to and sustains its latent moral relativism. The latter, as we have seen, is particularly evident in chapter 8. Subjectivism appears in that chapter and elsewhere in the document in either of two guises: that of modern, secular psychology passed off as “pastoral” guidance, or that of revisionist “discernment” dressed in the same, psycho-pastoral garb. Philosophical subjectivism in general, and its psychological counterpart in particular, have been fruitful sources of moral and theological heresy in the Church for well over a century now. Modern psychology is particularly noteworthy for its tendency to give “authoritative” sanction to vice, thus discouraging and preventing real inner healing and behavioral change by affirming that evil is good, and that psychopathology is normal. In a word, subjectivism is, by definition, not big on objective truth.
The Truth about the Truth. We can be neither fully human nor fully personal if we are not grounded firmly in objective truth, for our rational nature will otherwise be starved of the very food that nourishes it, and for which it craves–if only secretly. Deprived of the truth, life loses its meaning, and freedom its direction. We will then spend our freedom seeking disordered loves and loving in disordered ways. And that spells the death of true freedom, making true personal and human fulfillment impossible. Freedom’s fidelity to the objective truth about the moral good is the sole means by which we can become our own masters. For when we choose freely in accordance with the true good, we acquire the habit of acting virtuously, thus perfecting ourselves both humanly and personally. That is the prerequisite for our living a life characterized by mature, selfless love. Short of that, we would forfeit both true love and the love of truth. Life would then become impenetrably dark and godless.
As Saint John Paul II reminded us, “Man cannot live without love.” It follows that man cannot live without the truth either, for in his depths he wants and needs to love truly and to be truly loved. In the final analysis, this means that man cannot live without God. For Jesus Christ is the Truth that we seek behind all real truth and the Love that we seek behind all true love, even if we are unaware of it. He is the Truth in whom the Father’s Love has been revealed to and bestowed on us in the gift of the Redemption and of the Spirit. In virtue of this, He is also the Truth in whom we have been revealed most fully to ourselves, in all our lofty, God-given dignity.
In the Spirit of Christ–the Spirit of Love–we live by the truth of Christ and we love by His Love, precisely by our eager willingness to observe His Commandments. Only in that way do we uphold, defend, and promote our own true dignity and that of everyone else. By expressing our love for others thus in obedience to revealed moral truth, we simultaneously fulfill and perfect ourselves. We become sanctified and consecrated in the Truth of the Father (that is, in the Son), so as to be one with them and with our neighbor in the Love of the Spirit (see Jn 17:17-26). Given all this, we can understand why “The Joy of Love” (AL), which is so skittish about objective truth–divine moral truth in particular–is so ill-named.
Misguided Psycho-Pastoral Guidance. And so we should not be surprised to find Pope Francis telling us, “We ought to be able to acknowledge the other person’s truth” (AL, 138). Subjectivistic/relativistic, psycho-pastoral counsel of that kind suggests that objectivity–the truth about the way things really are (for whose knowledge God created the human intellect)–is no longer really necessary as a basis for authentic human dialogue. According to Francis, people have a “right” to think as they please. But he somehow overlooks the fact that people tend to act in a way corresponding to how they think. It would seem to follow, then, that people must also have a “right” to act as they please. The suppression of objective truth is thus the end of morality, the end of trust, the end of love: it is the end of all truly human relationships. It condemns us all to a life of self-centeredness, immaturity, depersonalization, aimless wandering, hopeless division, and godlessness.
To take another example, AL’s chapter 7 on the moral education of children offers all kinds of psychological advice on how to cultivate a child’s freedom, his inclination toward good, and his growth in virtue. But the indispensable criterion for establishing objectively what the virtuous good really is that freedom ought to pursue, namely, the objective truth (by which alone we know the true good), is conspicuously absent from the discussion–except when the pope wants to disparage it as something that we ought not to “impose” on children as “absolute and unquestionable” (AL, 264). Here we see more evidence of Pope Francis’s allergy to moral absolutes, which explains his inability to distinguish consistently between virtue and vice, to say nothing of his inability to appreciate fully either the rightful authority of parents or the deepest needs of their children.
Subjectivistic Discernment. The pope’s “pastoral” recommendation to admit some Catholics persisting in grave sexual sin to the sacraments presumes that the discernment of the pastor and/or of the sinner himself can determine whether the latter is in a state of sanctifying grace and hence fit to receive the sacraments. But it can’t. And without that little piece of objective information, pastors and sinners alike would be playing a very reckless and dangerous game with the temporal and eternal good of their souls by whitewashing iniquity and trifling with God’s sacramental gifts.
Putting his trust in an unbaptized understanding of human psychology, however, Pope Francis claims that the Church “possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations. Hence it is can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace” (AL, 301). But this is to misconstrue exactly what information the Church actually possesses and what she has concluded on the basis of it. The Church’s teaching on mitigating and conditioning factors pertains only to particular instances, even if habitual, in which a person sins seriously because of an impaired freedom. In these instances, however, the person, being conscious of the moral evil involved, recognizes the immediate need to repent of and overcome it. He therefore makes at least some effort to break with sin. It is precisely the will to make such an effort, in view of the objective seriousness of the sin, that causes in this subject the proper disposition for making a sincere confession, even if a subsequent lapse is still likely prior to his gaining self-mastery.
But AL is not dealing with that type of case. It is dealing with Catholics who have knowingly and willfully taken up with someone who is not their spouse, so as to enjoy, with that person, the privileges proper to conjugal life without actually being married to him or her. They cannot not know what they are doing, and yet they have presently no intention of breaking with their sin. Indeed, in AL, 123, Pope Francis tells us himself that the indissolubility of the marriage vow, along with all the traits of conjugal friendship that it implies, “is rooted in the natural inclinations of the human person.” Even children get the point, he affirms. And what he says there is manifestly true. So by what logic does he state later, in AL, 301, that some Catholics in “irregular” situations might have “great difficulty” understanding the inherent values of the Sixth Commandment? Given the clear truth of his earlier testimony, his subsequent statement exceeds the bounds of credibility. It would apply only to persons having a psychological or an intellectual defect so great that they would be incapable of contracting marriage at all.
The pope is obviously not referring to such persons, however. He is referring to Catholics who know exactly what adultery is and yet still will to commit it, to their temporal harm and perhaps their eternal ruin (to say nothing of the danger posed to those participating in their sin). Nevertheless, he insists on virtually giving them a free pass to the sacraments by interpreting their own, willful neglect of the obvious truth of their concrete situation as either a mitigated or a mitigating condition under the circumstances. But for these Catholics to receive the sacraments without true contrition for their sin and a firm resolve to amend their life here and now would only exacerbate their precarious spiritual state. Pastoral “discernment” would therefore be guilty of gross negligence and inexcusable imprudence to disregard the objective state of affairs and presume otherwise.
As we saw earlier, another of Pope Francis’s “pastorally sensitive” claims is that some Catholics who are transgressing the Sixth Commandment (or, by implication, any of the others) might be in a concrete situation that would cause them to commit “further sin” if they were to start observing it. The pope is implying here that the tension, created by the “situation,” between obedience and disobedience to the divine precept might be conditioning the freedom of these persons and so mitigating the guilt of their transgression. To repeat, the pope’s claim here, which betrays a “preferential option” for secular psychology, is absolutely blasphemous. It implies that the individual subject can know better than God does what is morally the “best” thing to do in any given instance. It implies that obedience to God’s commands can be the direct cause of evil. And it implies that a person can calculate the amount of “premoral evil” that would be realized by his either obeying or disobeying the Commandments, so as to enable him to “discern” for himself that disobedience to God sometimes results in a proportionately greater amount of good than obedience. We see especially clearly here that Pope Francis’s unabashed allegiance to the subjectivism of Catholic moral revisionism, accented with a psychological tinge, is what drives his pastoral program of discernment. But “discernment” of that kind only obscures the objective truth about the moral good, to the detriment of souls.
In this essay, we have examined the pastoral prescription in Amoris Laetitia that would allow Catholics persisting in grave sexual sin to receive the sacraments of penance and Holy Communion in cases where these sinners, either alone or together with their pastors, regard their subjective culpability for the sin to be highly diminished by mitigating and conditioning factors, or by the “voice” of conscience itself. Because this prescription is hopelessly problematic, we addressed first the question of the document’s authoritative status. On that matter, we concluded that AL has a fundamentally pastoral character of widely varying quality, though it does contain a magisterial component as well, insofar as it summarizes the basic teaching of the Church’s ordinary and universal magisterium on marriage and the family. At the same time, the document interprets certain doctrinal matters such as conscience, the moral evaluation of human acts, and the Ten Commandments according to revisionist principles, with the result that it contains both doctrinal errors that we must reject as non-magisterial, and imprudent pastoral counsel that we must also reject as pastorally unsound and spiritually dangerous. We will revisit this matter later on.
Pope Francis understood that in order for him to effect a revolutionary change in the Church’s sacramental practice, he could not very well nullify or overtly contravene an existing ecclesiastical law grounded in divine law. He had therefore to craft a “pastoral” strategy involving the “discernment” of individual cases. Incredibly, the ones “discerning” these cases are not chiefly pastors, despite the pope’s insistence that discernment, together with accompaniment, is a pastoral responsibility. Instead, he has put the very persons who have freely entangled themselves in “situations” of grave sin in the position of “discerning” their own cases, both because he has a misplaced confidence in their malformed or self-justifying consciences, and because pastors have necessarily to rely on their testimony in order to carry out their own discernment of these cases. We have seen that the pope focuses mainly on situations of adultery and fornication involving “mitigating” and “conditioning” factors, but we cannot reasonably believe that he expected his subjectivistic approach to discernment to go no further. In no time, some “pastors” would see to it that the sacraments would be offered to anyone and everyone unconditionally, citing AL as justifying their actions. And this is, in fact, what is happening. As the sacraments are increasingly profaned thus and faith in them is consequently undermined, the demand for doctrinal change will follow as surely as night follows day. On the part of some Catholics–both ordained or non-ordained–there is surely a consciously subversive intention to encourage this process, undoubtedly fueled by their own unbelief, intellectual pride, or moral turpitude.
AL and Beyond: The Attack Against Marriage and the Family. One of the first casualties of the pope’s “pastoral” strategy is bound to be the Church’s infallible teaching on marital indissolubility, aided and abetted by demands for a change in the Church’s infallible teaching on contraception. “Not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium,” Francis tells us, because there are “various ways of interpreting some aspects of [Church] teaching or drawing certain consequences from it.” As a result, “each country or region . . . can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs” (AL, 3). The result? A massacred magisterium and a Church divided.
While it is true that Pope Francis has summarized the Church’s ordinary and universal teaching on marriage and the family in his document on love in the family, it is also true that his “pastoral” prescription in chapter 8, though sure to undermine Church teaching in general, constitutes a direct attack on the family by fostering an indulgent and overly positive view of certain cases of fornication and adultery. Of course, the pope would deny this by pointing out that pastoral discernment cannot prescind, in these cases, “from the Gospel demands of truth and charity, as proposed by the Church” (AL, 300); however, we do not have to look very hard to find a qualifying statement of some kind: “It is true 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.” In Francis’s view, that would lead “to an intolerable casuistry” (AL, 304). The “general rules” to which he is referring here are God’s revealed moral laws proscribing morally illicit, sexual relationships–“‘irregular’ situations” (see AL, 305). The Church teaches that those laws are exceptionless. Pope Francis obviously disagrees.
As if he had not already inflicted enough damage on the divinely established and governed institution of matrimony, the pope stated just three months after AL’s release that “the great majority [later revised to read ‘a portion’] of our sacramental marriages are null.” Note well that the pope’s claim here is that many sacramental marriages are null; however, the Church teaches that every sacramental marriage is, by definition, valid, for every valid marriage between baptized persons is, in virtue of their baptism, a sacrament. So, while he can always point to statements in some parts of AL reiterating the Church’s infallible teaching on marital indissolubility (and on marriage in general), Pope Francis has simultaneously waged war with that teaching elsewhere in the document and in his subsequent public statement, thus starting to clear the way for the widespread acceptance and practice of second (and third and fourth . . .) “marriages” that are, in fact, adulterous. Indeed, he has amplified the effect of AL’s chapter 8 by his later remarks.
No sooner had the pope degraded “a portion” (perhaps still meaning the greater portion) of sacramental marriages than he lauded the “fidelity” that he sees in the relationships of some Catholic fornicators. Such “fidelity” makes him “sure that this is a real marriage, they have the grace of a real marriage” (italics added). So the pope has also begun, in effect, to dispense with the need of fornicators to get married at all. For the only “real” marriage between Christians is a sacramental one.
A Syllabus of Errors. As we have seen in this essay and the last, Pope Francis has expressed himself erroneously in other ways as well. His errors all strike at the root of Catholic moral theology, precisely by striking first at marriage and the family. The following summary of AL’s errors is not exhaustive:
1. The pope claims that “moral laws” pertaining “to those living in ‘irregular situations’” (AL, 305) are only “general rules” that “cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations” (AL, 304).
Reply: The Church teaches infallibly that the divine moral precepts do, in fact, apply to all particular situations. They are exceptionless–absolute.
2. The pope claims that a subject might “know full well the rule”–that is, the Sixth Commandment (or any of the others)–but have difficulty grasping its “inherent values” (AL, 301). He takes this “difficulty” to be a mitigating factor that exempts one from having to follow the “rule,” at least for the time being.
Reply: We showed earlier that the pope suggests just the opposite in AL, 123, and rightly so: the values to which he refers–which encompass the unique traits of the indissoluble, conjugal friendship of a man and a woman–are grasped easily because they accord fully with the deepest needs and aspirations of human nature. And the person, whose nature it is, understands them, for his nature is to understand. Besides, the Commandments impose their obligation the moment we know that God is their Author, for they rest on God’s supreme authority, to which we owe absolute obedience. This fundamental, catechetical fact is immediately grasped by the intellect even before the use of reason–that is, even by young children.
3. The pope claims that one cannot simply say that Catholics who persist in violating the Sixth Commandment are deprived of sanctifying grace (see AL, 301).
Reply: The replies given in numbers 1 and 2 above indicate the likelihood that these Catholics are, in fact, deprived of sanctifying grace. Invincible ignorance remains a remote possibility, but it might also be a sign of a person’s inability to contract marriage at all, given the complete naturalness with which a normal human being grasps the values that the Commandment intends to protect and cultivate.
In John 14:23, Our Lord proclaims, “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (see also vv. 24-26). That is to say, the love of God (and neighbor) is identical with our keeping Christ’s word. And this means that we keep His Commandments (see Jn 14:15). Our Lord did not offer us any lesser standard of loving Him (see Jn 14:24). Obedience to the divine precepts is therefore the very condition of the divine indwelling–of our abiding in the state of sanctifying grace (see Jn 14:15-17; 20-21; 1 Jn 3:24; 4:7-5:3; Mt 28:19-20).
4. The pope claims that someone might be in a concrete situation of adultery (or fornication) in which he discerns that he would commit further sin were he to obey the Sixth Commandment (see AL, 298, 301).
Reply: We saw earlier that Catholic moral revisionism is at the root of this blasphemy. Notwithstanding its emphasis on careful “discernment,” revisionism ends up reducing conscience to an emotional feeling about what is morally good or evil in a given case. As a result, moral decision, based thus on a person’s feelings, becomes so skewed and individualistic that the person might conclude he would do more good by disobeying than by obeying God’s moral law.
Insofar as conscience belongs to and is exercised by a subject–a human person–it has a subjective aspect, because of which it could err. But conscience is not subjectivistic on that account, for it is fundamentally an act of human intelligence. As such, it has the God-given and humanizing power and task of ascertaining what the objective truth about the moral good is in any particular situation, in the light of the universal demands of the natural and the revealed moral law. Once the person judges, in conscience, what he ought or ought not to do in the concrete situation, he can freely will to effect the true moral good and avoid moral evil here and now.
Pope Francis, on the other hand, opposes “discernment” to the practical judgment of the intellect (that is, to the act of conscience), often mischaracterizing “judgment” as a negative, moral assumption about people based superficially on their actual conduct. In other words, he seems to view judgment mainly as an irrational, prejudicial supposition about others that bespeaks a preoccupation with their objective transgression of a moral norm. On the contrary, we are moral creatures precisely because we are endowed with reason and free will, which imposes on us the obligation to make sound moral judgments regarding both our own true good and that of our neighbor. We are, in that sense, our brother’s keeper. Rational, moral judgment is the only possible way for us to arrive at “a certain moral security” about “what God himself is asking” in a given situation, whereas it is eminently irrational to believe that God would ever ask us to violate the very Commandments that He took the trouble to reveal . . . and to die for. Yet, Pope Francis would have us accept precisely this irrational belief (AL, 303).
Once we have forsaken the objective truth about the moral good–particularly as enshrined in the divine moral precepts–we will inevitably descend into the expedient, arbitrary, and ultimately dark and dehumanizing world of subjectivisitic, moral relativism. We will then rely on emotional feelings about what we “sincerely” want to do in our “concrete” situation, rather than on the practical judgment of conscience about what we truly ought to do, feelings to the contrary notwithstanding. Once those feelings fade, however, we will be left with nothing but the moral, spiritual, and personal wreckage that we caused by acting on them.
5. Ignoring Church teaching that serious sin can blind conscience, the pope claims, on the contrary, that Catholics transgressing the Sixth Commandment can recognize, in conscience, that in their situation they are giving God the most generous response possible, and that God confirms for them, in conscience, that this is all He is asking of them because of the concrete complexity of their limitations (see AL, 303).
Reply: Again, the Church teaches that the Commandments are exceptionless moral norms. The fundamental reasons for their being universally exceptionless and hence absolutely binding on conscience are either self-evident to, or sufficiently grasped by, the normal human intellect with a minimal amount of reflection; therefore, no Catholic can reasonably believe that the voice of God in conscience has granted him an exception from the need to observe any of these norms.
What is more, the very fact that the Commandments issue from the absolute goodness of God’s will tells us that our observing them is absolutely necessary for human flourishing and for safeguarding both our personal dignity and that of our neighbor. It is therefore impossible for God to contradict Himself by dispensing anyone, in conscience, from obeying them. The pope’s contention to the contrary is therefore both erroneous and blasphemous. It encourages and condones the unacceptable attitude of the person who would make “his own weakness the criterion of the truth about the good, so that he can feel self-justified, without even the need to have recourse to God and his mercy.”
The Bottom Line: The common denominator of all these errors is that they each remove the cross from Christianity, as though there were no intrinsic connection between the Christian life and the demand for genuine, self-sacrificial obedience to the revealed will of God. So we should not be surprised to find Pope Francis portraying adulterers as though they were making heroic sacrifices precisely through their act of rebelling against God and neighbor. They enter extramarital relationships “for the sake of the children’s upbringing” (AL, 298), and they remain in them to avoid “further sin” (AL, 301), or so as to offer God what is, for now, their “most generous response” (AL, 303).
I should mention more explicitly that while I have been emphasizing AL’s revisionist-style attempt to instigate changes in the Church’s moral teaching, such changes necessarily entail changes in her dogmatic teaching as well. Indeed, we have already seen that Pope Francis’s subjectivistic view of conscience (which goes hand in hand with his empty, situational concept of mercy) so skews one’s understanding of Who God is that conscience can delude itself into thinking it hears God’s “voice” concurring with the subject’s rebellion against His absolute moral precepts. But then, what need have we of a Savior who delivers us from sin? So we can proceed to de-divinize Christ and simply regard Him as a good example worthy of admiration, but not necessarily of imitation. After a time, we can also dispense altogether with the accommodating, morally nonjudgmental idol-god we created to assuage our guilt, as we come to regard ourselves to be the absolute judges of what constitutes moral good and evil. Having thus “divinized” ourselves, we become the unrivaled, self-justifying authors of our own salvation–the masters of our own destiny.
Is AL Null and Void? While Pope Francis is responsible for having expressed himself in seriously erroneous ways in AL and beyond, he did not teach any of those errors formally, nor is there any evidence that he attempted to do so. That’s the good news. Nevertheless, it does seem as though we are dealing, objectively and unambiguously, with material heresies. Of course, if Cardinal Schönborn’s estimation of AL were correct–namely, that it is an act of the magisterium constituting the great text of moral theology–then we would probably be dealing with some formal heresies against divine and Catholic faith. But that is not the case.
One might still ask whether AL’s errors and self-contradictions–so inimical to the doctrine on marriage and the family that it does rightly teach–disqualify it from being considered magisterial in any respect. To the best of my knowledge, no. Historical precedent, though not identical with the perhaps unprecedented problems that AL presents us with, would suggest that only those doctrinally related parts of the document that are incompatible with the faith would be thus disqualified. The parts of the document that do contain magisterial teaching do not confer a magisterial status on every other part.
Nevertheless, the fact that AL summarizes the basic teaching of the ordinary and universal magisterium on marriage and the family has not blunted the force of the document’s errors, which have caused, and will continue to cause, enormous confusion, harm, and division in the Church, to say nothing of the world to which she has a divine mandate to be the guiding light. In one and the same document we have both sublime truth and utter falsity–elements of the deposit of faith juxtaposed with a deposit of filth. All this internal contradiction has resulted in an obscuring of divine truth, without whose clarity the Church cannot be the true sign of contradiction to the world that she is obliged to be as Christ’s presence therein. AL’s pernicious errors must therefore be humbly acknowledged and corrected.
At least one thing is certain: in the end, those errors will not stand. Another thing is certain as well: they did not get there by accident. They were set up carefully, not just by AL’s recourse to moral revisionism, but also by its purposeful misuse of numerous scholastic, conciliar, ecclesiastical, papal, and, arguably, even scriptural texts. While it is unlikely that Pope Francis himself is responsible for fabricating the sleazy textual distortions that occur in the document, his undue confidence in the judgment of Cardinal Schönborn about the document’s doctrinal integrity clearly encouraged him to defend it, in the face of criticism, as doctrinally sound and thoroughly Thomistic, from start to finish. Where chapter 8, in particular, is concerned, that claim cannot be realistically sustained.
It seems that God is allowing the Church to undergo a huge, purgative trial right now, perhaps because of the lukewarmness, the worldliness, and the infidelity to Christ of so many of her members. The gates of hell are therefore pushing hard against her, both from without and, far more effectively, from within. But they will not prevail. For Jesus Christ is ever the invincible Head of the Church, Mary is her mother, St. Joseph her patron and protector, St. Michael her defender, and an army of saints her intercessors. As we await, in hope, the Church’s final victory in Christ, let us resolve, with the help of God’s grace, to build up the body of Christ by keeping Our Lord’s Commandments without fail. Let us do so out of love for Him, both in Himself and in our neighbor. And let us pray that Jesus’s prayer to His Father for Peter–namely, that the first of the Apostles would return to Him and then strengthen his brothers (see Lk 22:32)–will be fulfilled in Pope Francis, to whom we look to do the same.
. See www.americamagazine.org/issue/demands-love. He goes on to say that the document is “an authentic teaching of sacra doctrina, which leads us back to the contemporary relevance of the word of God.” In the context of the whole article, Schönborn’s remark suggests that the Church’s traditional presentation of revealed moral truth had lost its power to address today’s complex ways of life and thought, whereas Francis has restored God’s word to the contemporary scene by taking people’s “real” situations into account. It seems that AL regards these situations and the questions people are asking–in other words, “new” human experiences–as the hermeneutic by which the Gospel must be reinterpreted and made relevant in each historico-cultural setting. Human “weakness”–fallen man–has thus become the measure of what God’s revealed word has to tell us. But that is to reduce divine revelation to nothing more than an instrument of self-affirmation by which one can justify one’s own sinfulness, even to the point of mistaking one’s own reprobation for divine approbation. To sum up, then, Schönborn has alerted us to the fact that AL’s subjectivistic perspective is subtly relativistic and, in the end, thoroughly subversive.
. See “‘Amoris Laetitia’ at three months: Communion question still debated,” CNS News, July 7, 2016 (www.catholic news.com/services/englishnews/2016/amoris-laetitia-at-three-months-communion-question-still-debated.cfm). Schönborn also claims that AL “develops further the choices that were already made by the Catechism of the Catholic Church and by ‘Veritatis Splendor,’” implying that AL supersedes them to that extent. He seems to be referring to the “choices” that the Catechism and Veritatis Splendor made in affirming the possibility of diminished moral culpability due to mitigating and conditioning factors (which is nothing new to Catholic moral reflection). In that case, he is seriously mistaken to regard AL’s approval of offering the sacraments to some fornicators and adulterers (and, in principle, to anyone else who persists in transgressing the divine precepts) as a legitimate development of the position taken in those two sources. Rather, AL came to its own conclusion about the matter by violently extorting unintended meaning from convenient, decontextualized proof texts culled from the Catechism (see AL, 302).
. Such is the judgment of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. See http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1350744bdc4.html?eng=y.
. See my previous essay on this matter. A few authors have discovered the uncanny resemblance between some of the most dubious passages in AL and some texts found in a pair of articles written a decade earlier by Argentinian priest Victor Manuel Fernández. In those articles, Fernández challenges Veritatis Splendor’s unequivocal rejection of moral relativism. To put it another way, he challenges the encyclical’s affirming the existence of intrinsically evil acts, and hence of moral absolutes. Fernández is reputed to have been one of AL’s ghostwriters. In 2009, when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Pope Francis appointed Fernández rector of the Catholic University of Argentina. Later, as pope, he appointed him Titular Archbishop of Tiburnia in May 2013. He was raised to the episcopacy the following month. See http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1351303bdc4.html?eng=y
. One has good reason to wonder whether the somewhat extraneous inclusion of Francis’s exegesis of 1 Cor 11:17-34 (see AL, 185-86) is intended (1) to dismiss, pre-emptively, objections to his pastoral recommendation that would appeal to the traditional meaning, given above, of 1 Cor 11:29 (see Denzinger-Schönmetzer, 1646, 1647, 1661; Catechism, 1385); and (2) to chide those defending the traditional sacramental discipline for thereby consenting “to various forms of division, contempt, and inequality,” so that they (and not the fornicators, the adulterers, the active homosexuals, and so on) are the ones who receive the Eucharist unworthily (see AL, 186).
. In the case of adultery, this would include a disregard for the dignity of the adulterer’s real spouse and of any children that the adulterer had conceived with that spouse. The pope seems to suggest that an adulterer’s concern for their welfare during and after the decision to take up with another “spouse” somehow ameliorates the indignities inflicted on them because of that decision (see AL, 300). It doesn’t.
. I will say more about these matters as we proceed.
. See the citation given in the previous note.
. The “concrete situation,” mind you, that the sinners have contrived for themselves.
. See AL, n. 345, and surrounding context
. Of course, the faithful are supposed to feel “challenged” by this application of “the balm of mercy” (AL, 7 and 309 respectively), but not scandalized by it, which Francis would see as a sign of insecurity or “rigidity.”
. Unfortunately, that day is no longer unthinkable during the pontificate of Pope Francis. Of course, any papal effort to compromise or to change the Church’s moral teaching in a seemingly official or “pastoral” way would amount to nothing more than a charade and a deception–a perverse parody of a solemn or of a “merciful” papal act, bound to be exposed as such in due time; however, while any such sham would have no power to alter the objective truth of God’s revealed moral law, it would have a seductive power capable of adversely altering people’s perceptions about that truth, to the temporal harm and eternal ruin of many.
. See www.lifesitenews.com/news/francis-praises-prominent-humanae-vitae-dissenter-for-his-radical-new-moral. After the publication of Veritatis Splendor, Häring claimed that his reading of the document so discouraged him that he suffered brain seizures several hours later. When his dramatic hope of leaving this world for the Church triumphant fell short, he decided that he would heroically press on, despite the prospect of his experiencing pain and seizures related to the same cause in the near future. See Understanding Veritatis Splendor: The Encyclical Letter of Pope John Paul II on the Church’s Moral Teaching (London: SPCK, 1994), 9.
. Unduly enthusiastic AL peddlers sometimes give us the impression that Pope Francis invented the concept of accompaniment himself, and that, up till now, pastors have generally excluded serious sinners from their care, or have spent their time humiliating them. Of course, these AL enthusiasts are just taking their cue from the pope’s own unfounded rhetoric about pastors who seem to have nothing better to do than to throw doctrinal stones at sinners.
. “The pastoral ‘law of gradualness,’ not to be confused with the ‘gradualness of the law’ which would tend to diminish the demands it places on us, consists of requiring a decisive break with sin together with a progressive path towards total union with the will of God and with his loving demands.” Vademecum for Confessors Concerning Some Aspects of the Morality of Conjugal Life, Pontifical Council for the Family (February 12, 1997), 9. See www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/family/documents/rc_pc_family_doc_12021997_vademecum_en.html. This passage cites and summarizes the meaning of Familiaris Consortio, 34.
. On that last point, see Familiaris Consortio, 8. Note well that Pope Francis confirms this understanding in AL, 122: “There is no need to lay upon two limited persons [i.e., two spouses] the tremendous burden of having to reproduce perfectly the union existing between Christ and his Church, for marriage as a sign entails ‘a dynamic process…, one which advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God’” [Familiaris Consortio, 9]. In other words, graced by the infusion of God’s love through the sacrament of matrimony, the spouses make visible in their marital life the love with which Christ loves His Church. But they also grow over time in their capacity to make that love visible ever more perfectly. This use of the “gradualism” text from Familiaris Consortio, 9, occurs in AL’s chapter 4 under the subhead, “Growing in conjugal love.” Chapter 8’s use of the same text, however, gives us a very different and tendentious interpretation under the subhead, “Gradualness in pastoral care” (see AL, 295).
. “It is only in faithfulness to this covenant [with divine Wisdom] that the families of today will be in a position to influence positively the building of a more just and fraternal world” (Familiaris Consortio, 8).
. Since Francis is dealing with “concrete situations” in which grave sinners are resolved to persist in their sin, it is wholly irrelevant and disingenuous that he should, in that context, find it “helpful to recall the teaching of Saint John Paul II, who stated that the possibility of a new fall ‘should not prejudice the authenticity of the resolution’” (AL, n. 364). This teaching must be understood, as a general principle, in the same way that it is understood relative to the particular sin of contraception in the following passage from Vademecum for Confessors Concerning Some Aspects of the Morality of Conjugal Life, 5: “Frequent relapse into sins of contraception does not in itself constitute a motive for denying absolution; absolution cannot be imparted, however, in the absence of sufficient repentance or of the resolution not to fall again into sin.” What is more, “The confessor is bound to admonish penitents regarding objectively grave transgressions of God’s law and to ensure that they truly desire absolution and God’s pardon with the resolution to re-examine and correct their behaviour.” Admonishing sinners in accordance with the objective truth of their situation is not to hurl stones at them, to indoctrinate them, to judge them harshly, or to have a closed heart (see AL, 49, 305); nor does it reflect “a cold bureaucratic morality” (AL, 312), “a certain scrupulosity” (AL, n. 364), or an “intolerable casuistry” (AL, 304). Rather, it constitutes a duty, fulfilled in charity, by which the confessor helps the sinner understand the seriousness of the sin and the harm that it is doing, so as mercifully to elicit thereby the proper, indispensable disposition for absolution.
. See his encyclical Redemptor Hominis, 10.
. Note that the errors described already herein are reflected in the dubia submitted to the pope last September by Cardinals Brandmüller, Burke, Caffarra, and Meisner.
. See www.lifesitenews.com/mobile/blogs/pope-all-of-amoris-laetitia-is-sound-doctrine-ban-the-death-penalty. See also www.lifesitenews.com/news/pope-francis-questioned-orthodoxy-of-amoris-laetitia.
by Jeff Tranzillo
Official Church documents are sometimes dated to coincide with a day on which the Church celebrates a particularly apt feast or solemnity. This helps capture the significance of the document being promulgated. For example, Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae, The Gospel of Life, was given on March 25, 1995, the Solemnity of the Annunciation. Likewise, it was no accident that Pope Francis’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation on love in the family, Amoris Laetitia, was given last year on March 19, the Solemnity of St. Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In this case, however, the date chosen was more ironic than apt. The document’s unduly positive outlook on some cases of fornication and adultery suggests that the pope had reflected little, if at all, on the virtues that characterized St. Joseph, the head of the Holy Family: justice, charity, chastity, fidelity, prudence, fortitude, and unwavering obedience to God, to name a few. Rather, the pope’s reflections are clearly grounded in the speculations of Catholic moral revisionists, particularly as regards his understanding both of conscience and of how to evaluate the morality of human acts. His glaring errors in these areas lead him, through a process of “discernment,” to see virtue where there is really only vice, and to see disobedience to God as obedience or even as superior to obedience, in some cases. While a close reading of the document should suffice to convince us of its indebtedness to moral revisionism, we need only to recall the undue praise that Francis heaped last November on the late Bernard Häring–an icon of the Catholic revisionist movement–to dispel any lingering doubt. Catholic revisionists challenge both the Church’s moral teachings and the very the foundations on which they rest. What is Catholic moral revisionism, and how does Amoris Laetitia fit into its mold? This essay will examine both of those questions in turn.
Major Themes of Catholic Moral Revisionism
Some moral norms, such as the negative precepts of the Ten Commandments, proscribe specific kinds of human acts unconditionally: “Thou shall not commit adultery.” For that reason, they do not include any descriptive moral qualifications: “Thou shall not commit adultery without your spouse’s consent.” Because the Commandments, and other moral precepts like them, identify specific human actions that must never be committed by anyone, at any time, under any circumstances, they are called “moral absolutes,” or “exceptionless moral norms.” Such actions never qualify morally as legitimate objects of choice.
Catholic moral revisionists contend, however, that proscriptive formulas expressing moral norms in unconditional terms can never take into account every detail or combination of details that might be morally relevant to the concrete situations that the formulas are supposed to cover universally. The particular details involved in a situation can so modify it as to allow one to commit an otherwise proscribed action under the circumstances, and to do so in good conscience. Revisionists tell us, therefore, that we must regard “exceptionless” moral norms as general rules only, since their scope is thus limited. They serve as guides for, but not as masters of, moral decision. For all practical purposes, there are no moral absolutes.
According to the revisionists, then, whenever a human act having moral import bears on a concrete situation, one cannot determine the essence of the act, nor, consequently, can one evaluate its morality, without having first identified and weighed all the circumstances, goods, values, and foreseeable consequences that the act entails in that situation. One must also consider, relative to the situation, the evil and the disvalues that the act entails (whether inherently or consequentially), and, above all, the person’s intention–the purpose that the actor aims to achieve by taking a certain course of action. For all these elements contribute to the person’s decision to act in a specific, morally significant way. Apart from a real situation in which this comprehensive moral inventory has been carried out relative to a particular kind of human act, revisionists regard the act in itself, or the good or evil associated with it, as “premoral,” or “physical” (among other equivalent terms).
In the opinion of these theorists, then, neither an act considered in itself (e.g., killing) nor any goods or evils considered abstractly (e.g., life or death) can be morally defined, or specified. Rather, the moral specification of any deliberate, human act depends on the concrete situation in its totality, with all its morally relevant features, as assessed in the light of the end that the actor intends to achieve by the act. Once a person has ascertained the exact nature of the act according to its surrounding circumstances and the actor’s intention therein, he can evaluate its moral quality. Thus, if the actor intends to realize a proportionately greater amount of good than of evil in view of the overall situational context, then his action (e.g., direct abortion) can be justified as morally “right,” or “advantageous,” despite the “premoral” evil he has deliberately willed (the death of an innocent person) in violating a moral norm that moral revisionists concede ought generally to be observed.
Given their insistence on the need to consider the morally relevant whole of a situation in the moral evaluation of any human act, revisionist theorists insist further that when a person has acted, is acting, or proposes to act concretely in a certain way, the act must be viewed within the intentional context of the total series of actions to which it was, is, or will be related. This, too, is one of the act’s situating factors. In consequence, while the immediate purpose and effect of certain isolated acts regarded as part of the action series might contravene the final goal that one intends for the series as a whole, revisionists claim, nevertheless, that particular acts opposed, here and now, to one’s final, intentional goal are still informed by it (and, in that sense, contribute to its realization). The weighing of all the relevant circumstances, goods, values, evils, and disvalues involved in the total series, and the effort to divine what, if any, bearing each act therein will have on them, is supposed to allow one to decide whether, in view of the foreseeable consequences, one has a “proportionate reason” to justify committing an act that might otherwise be proscribed because of its “premorally” evil content and effects.
The classic revisionist illustration of this idea is the allegedly licit use of artificial contraception in connection with particular acts of marital intercourse. According to revisionists, the goal intended directly by these “premorally” evil acts is, in certain concrete situations, generous, procreative fruitfulness and the welcoming of life. For that, they claim, is the intention governing the whole of the couple’s conjugal life, to which the contracepted acts belong. Thus, marital acts wherein the couple has artificially disabled their fertility–acts that necessarily intend to prevent God from intervening, should He so will, to bestow on them the gift of new human life through natural conjugal union–are intentionally transformed into their opposite. That is, contracepted sexual intercourse becomes, in the case of this couple and in “good conscience,” a profound instantiation of marital love, expressing openness to conception and, presumably, to its Author as well.
In like manner, revisionist moral theorists (considered collectively) will in some cases invite conscience to judge, as morally permissible, other intrinsically evil acts such as sodomy, the “killing” of an innocent person (i.e., murder), and, yes, fornication and adultery (the latter being the practical result of some revisionists challenging the doctrine of marital indissolubility, so as to justify divorce and remarriage). They regard these acts merely as premoral evils that one can rightly choose in a given situation, when all the morally relevant factors purportedly warrant their realization. The revisionist method of moral calculation, though never really explained, mysteriously enables conscience to conclude that the inevitable damage or destruction caused by one’s enacting a “premoral” evil in “permissible” circumstances is somehow outweighed by one’s intending to realize a good of a higher order through the same act. On account of that “higher” good–which is the final, intentional end purportedly to be achieved either by the act itself, or by its relation to a whole series of acts–revisionists feel free to redefine the means that the actor has actually used to achieve it. They can then assign the dirty deed to a more benign category, thus bypassing, or at least seeming to mitigate the breach of, a nonnegotiable principle of authentic Catholic morality: the end does not justify the means; one is not permitted to do evil that good might come of it (see Rm 3:8).
In contemporary western societies that promote active euthanasia as “mercy killing” or as “compassion in dying,” we see at work the revisionist method of justifying intrinsically evil acts. First, we find “proportionate reasons” for committing such an act (e.g., the person is old and suffering, which affects adversely his “quality of life”). On that basis, we can then place the act into a new intentional category (mercy, compassion) that makes its actual content, murder, much more palatable. On the other hand, some Catholic revisionists are not as inclined to whitewash so easily the grossly immoral nature of the action. They would simply justify it as the “lesser evil.” They would then tell us that the perpetrator’s committing this “lesser evil” serves only to highlight his surpassing love for the proportionately greater good that he intends, for whose realization he is willing to commit the evil. The villain is thus rehabilitated as a tragic hero.
Some revisionists like to emphasize that ever-changing historical and cultural contingencies bearing on human life, together with new human experiences, make it impossible, in principle, to maintain that any moral precept is universally binding on every conscience in every time, place, and circumstance. They can then claim that established moral norms, while useful as general guides to human conduct, will eventually come to be viewed differently as concrete conditions and experiences change over time. This will require that the norms be revised. It is therefore up to each human community to determine for itself, based on the shared experiences of its members, what is morally normative for it and what is not. This is taken as a sign of humanity’s triumphal march toward greater humanization. It follows, at least implicitly, that “human nature” is not a fixed entity that transcends historico-cultural change. Instead, it is ever in process–that is, evolving.
Problems with Catholic Moral Revisionism
Some Catholic revisionists claim to defend the existence of moral absolutes, at least as formal principles; however, that simply reduces them to the status of “general rules” that ought, perhaps, to inform human attitudes and behaviors, but that are nevertheless inadequate for addressing the endlessly variable combinations of factors involved concretely in specific cases. In effect, therefore, moral revisionism ignores what the person is objectively doing, while still pretending to ground itself in objective reality by attending to the “concrete” circumstances, goods and evils, values and disvalues, and consequences specific to each morally charged situation–all in connection with the subject’s intentional aim in choosing to act a certain way in that situation. Yet, that is precisely how revisionism winds up mired hopelessly in subjectivism. How is that?
The first thing to note is that Catholic moral revisionism entails, implicitly, an unrealistically optimistic view of the human condition and of human intentionality. That is not surprising, presupposing, as it does, that human “evolution” proceeds invariably upward. It can therefore place on the shoulders of the very person who is mired in a moral morass the responsibility for identifying and weighing all the morally relevant factors contained therein, so that he can decide how best to act in a situation that includes “premorally” good and evil aspects. But what method would that person or any human being use, first, to determine what those factors are, and, second, to measure them against each other, so that he can choose an action that will effect the most good while minimizing the evil that he also expects the act to yield directly? How could he possibly quantify how or how many other human beings (or other created beings) would be affected by that evil? Whose authority would he invoke to support the claim that his personal intention to effect a proportionately greater good by his action justifies the evil that the action will also directly unleash? And on whose authority would he be allowed to assign that evil to a merely “premoral” status, so that he would allegedly bear little or no moral responsibility for physically enacting it? Can he really be so sure of either the nobility or the purity of his intention to act for the sake of a (presumably legitimate) moral good when he consciously co-intends the evil inherent in, or consequent on, that same act?
So, while Catholic moral revisionism purports to take account of the concrete, or objective, elements pertaining to a given moral situation, the whole revisionist enterprise is, in the end, totally subjective and, consequently, radically individualistic. That is why it will never succeed in theoretically circumscribing the occasions on which it would allow conscience to choose “premoral” evil for proportionate reasons. When it comes to any kind of moral conduct in any kind of situation, its principles authorize the individual subject, like the nearsighted umpire, to “call ‘em as he sees ‘em.” And for all its talk about the need to assess the consequences of a specific kind of human action as it bears on a concrete situation, moral revisionism spends little time assessing how the consequences of original and personal sin might be skewing the practical judgment of a person who, though drawn by the prospect of transgressing a divine, moral precept (or perhaps mired already in a gravely sinful situation), is still entrusted by revisionists with the task of evaluating both the morality of his prospective breach of divine law (or of his sinful situation) and the moral standing that he has before God. Simply put, revisionists “empower” each person to determine subjectively, for himself, what constitutes moral good or moral evil in his own case.
The fact is, revisionist moral theory guarantees not only moral relativism but also religious indifferentism, agnosticism, and atheism. Human reflection on human praxis is taken as the criterion both of what we are to believe and of how we are to live. That is the only criterion of truth. This self-styled brand of intellectual and practical “truth,” moreover, is subject to further change as historico-cultural conditions evolve, which is itself taken as a sign that human experience, human life, and human nature itself are also evolving. So in the end, there can really be no such thing as truth at all–trans-historical, trans-cultural truth that we can know with certainty, and that applies always and everywhere to everyone, regardless of the circumstances. How can there be, since all human knowledge and moral norms must evolve in step with human nature itself?
In the revisionist scheme of things, then, human beings arrive at provisional understandings of “truth” in each epoch by assessing reality as they perceive and live it in their situation. In approaching Sacred Scripture from that perspective, they interpret it as validating their perceptions and vindicating their actions. Should it fail to do so, its teaching will just have to be dismissed as an embarrassing relic of a moribund historico-cultural era, or perhaps “reappropriated” to suit ours. In effect, this robs divine revelation of its objective value and, ultimately, of its very reality. Revelation becomes, instead, a means by which we can achieve an ego-affirming confirmation of our preferred way of life. It becomes an instrument of our self-deification. There is another name for all this: Modernism. As we move on now to examine, in Amoris Laetitia, the moral revisionism of the Argentinian pope, it is hardly irrelevant that the same method of biblical hermeneutics just described is employed by yet another ideologically-driven approach to undermining Catholic truth: liberation theology.
Moral Revisionism in Amoris Laetitia
While avoiding the use of its telltale jargon, Amoris Laetitia (hereafter AL) presupposes Catholic moral revisionism and argues out of the same playbook, with some additional accents from its elder kinsman, situation ethics. One can therefore expect that AL is beset by the same, irremediable problems. We have seen that moral revisionism does not defend the existence of moral absolutes in any meaningful way. They are merely general rules, abstractions, or ideals that prescind from the “concrete,” or “real,” situations that people actually face every day. Those situations involve innumerable morally relevant factors that can alter the meaning and relevance of the “general rules” that might otherwise apply, relieving human beings, in some cases, from the obligation to observe them.
Relativizing Absolutes. Likewise, Pope Francis alerts us early on in AL that he intends to “examine the actual situation of families, in order to keep firmly grounded in reality” (AL, 6). Throughout the document, he never tires of repeating that mantra, thus reinforcing its implied corollary: “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). Now, that is obviously true regarding some types of rules. For example, civil law’s prohibition against running a red light could be legitimately suspended in a real emergency. The same principle applies also to most affirmative moral precepts. For example, the moral obligation to return a borrowed item, such as a gun, could be suspended if one has since learned that its rightful owner intends to do grave harm with it. The problem is that Francis, along with Catholic moral revisionists, seems to regard even the Sixth Commandment–an exceptionless, negative moral precept–as a “general rule” that cannot be applied (at least immediately) to all the situations that might seem to fall within its scope (see AL, 303). He also consigns to the “general rule” category the traditional Church discipline of denying the sacraments of penance and Holy Communion to Catholics living in adulterous unions (see AL, 300).
Having absolutized the general rule that general rules have only limited applicability, Francis has simultaneously relativized both the Commandment of God and the intrinsically related sacramental discipline that has heretofore borne witness to its absolute, universally binding character. Sad to say, he does so by utilizing an old revisionist trick, namely, that of citing article I-II, 94, 4 of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae (see AL, 304), which addresses the relation of general principles to particular cases. There, Thomas gives the example that I used above (in slightly modified form) about occasional exceptions to the general rule obliging one to return borrowed goods. This rule is an affirmative precept governed by the nonnegotiable primary precepts of the Golden Rule and the Gospel law of love. As such, it can be overturned under certain conditions in order to satisfy, objectively and concretely, their unconditional demands. Like the moral revisionists, however, Francis simply ignores numerous texts in which Thomas condemns, absolutely, specific human actions that are intrinsically evil by reason of their object. Apropos of our present concern, those actions include fornication and adultery. Thomas also makes it clear that no one can be dispensed from observing any of the Decalogue’s precepts.
Ironically, Francis relegates God’s “general rule”–the Sixth Commandment–to the level of an abstract principle by his own repeated appeal to an abstraction, namely, to the alleged “complexity” of the situations in which people put (or, according to him, “find”) themselves. Despite this logical contradiction, he persistently beckons us to conclude that no single moral precept, or “ideal,” could ever fully account for the complex nature of real life situations. Regrettably, his position reflects a strictly intraworldly view of reality. For God’s omniscience is a datum of revelation that should lead us to conclude, in faith, that in devising His Commandments, He has taken into account every possible combination of “real life” factors that could ever bear on any concrete situation to which the divine precepts might apply. Having duly considered the full scope of the potential complexities involved, He still commands us, in His infinite Wisdom, Goodness, Justice, and Love: “Thou shall not.”
Changing the Moral Specification of Adultery. What does AL have to tell us about the moral specification of a particular kind of human act that is, objectively speaking, immoral? The document elaborates most on that topic in its treatment of the “new union” between a divorced Catholic and someone other than his or her spouse. “New union” is AL’s euphemism for a sexual relationship established by ongoing acts of adultery. According to AL, the adulterous relationship is morally specified, not by its object–deliberately willed sex with someone other than one’s spouse, or with another’s spouse (and all the injustice that entails against God, neighbor, and children)–but by the intention of the actors that is presumed to underlie all the positive or negative elements present in the relationship. One’s intention would be morally unacceptable if, for example, one entered the relationship without regard for the good of the children that one already has by one’s real spouse; however, Francis seems more interested in attending to “the constructive elements in those situations which do not yet [in cases of fornication] or no longer [in cases of adultery] correspond to [the Church’s] teaching on marriage,” but which, in his view, realize the “ideal” of marriage “in at least a partial and analogous way” (AL, 292).
Constructive (or positive) elements in “new unions” include the consolidation of the union over time, with its “new children, proven fidelity, generous self giving, [and] Christian commitment.” Somehow the pope also includes, as a constructive, consolidating element, one’s “consciousness of [the union’s] irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins” (AL, 298). The text goes on to suggest that the concern about falling into new sins stems from the parents’ sense of obligation toward the children born of their morally illicit union. That is the ostensible reason why they cannot satisfy their moral obligation to separate, or at least to live as brother and sister (see AL, n. 329). The pope apparently regards all these elements, united by and reflecting the couple’s overall intention to consolidate the new union, as contributing constructively, in this concrete situation, to the moral specification of the adulterous acts taking place therein.
Citing John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio, 84, Pope Francis also gives the example of a person’s entering a second union for the ostensible reason of ensuring the welfare of children born of the first union. In this case, conscience does not regard the first union as having ever been valid in the first place (see AL, 298). Unlike his predecessor, however, Francis seems to regard the intention behind this new union not merely as understandable yet morally problematic, but as constructive and, therefore, as contributing favorably to the moral specification of the morally illicit, sexual relationship (which is one of either fornication or adultery, depending on the objective status of the first union). That would explain how, in note 329, the pope could so contort the meaning of Gaudium et Spes, 51–which refers to validly married couples only–as to suggest that in the type of “new union” just described, extramarital “fidelity” is endangered and the good of children suffers when “certain expressions of intimacy are lacking.” The “intimacy” to which he alludes here can only be sexual intercourse, which in this “situation” is gravely immoral.
Because the specifying elements vary from case to case, situations such as those given above “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, in determining the moral status of a morally illicit sexual relationship, pastors and their charges should start paying less attention to the fact that such a relationship objectively (or concretely) exists. Francis wants them to attend instead to the personal intention of the actors relative to a whole series of “consolidating” acts within that relationship–acts, as we have seen, that include fidelity, generous self-giving, Christian commitment, procreation, parental solicitude, and so on. For that, in his view, is chiefly what morally specifies the relationship. A “good” intention would therefore mitigate the personal culpability of the subjects of that relationship and also, it would seem, the objectively defective nature of the relationship as a counterfeit of true marriage. This seems to explain why the pope refuses to classify “constructive” new or de facto unions as “adultery” or “fornication” respectively. Instead, he classifies them as “‘irregular’ situations,” which sounds comparatively benign or morally neutral. It would seem he is satisfied that he has identified proportionate reasons for doing so.
Note the implications of the pope’s revisionist position on the moral specification of the adulterous relationship. We have just seen that he regards the “constructive elements” of the relationship as positive manifestations of the couple’s intention to “consolidate” it, while those same elements, in turn, reinforce the couple’s intention or even help form it to begin with. Since their intention seems to be directed toward realizing “premorally” good effects rather than toward the “premoral” evil of adultery itself, Francis presumes that it is upright. Based on his “discernment”–which is just another word for the unexplained, revisionist method of calculation by which one seeks proportionate reasons for doing evil–the pope is suggesting, in effect, that the good, stabilizing, and consolidating fruits produced by the adulterous couple are due to the adultery itself, and that those fruits–alleged to be the intentional end informing the couple’s acts of adultery–might even have been jeopardized without it. The couple’s intention, therefore, specifies their adultery as fundamentally good. What else can one conclude, except that adultery itself, while perhaps not fully ideal, can still partially realize the “ideal” of marriage in some cases (see AL, 292), thereby enabling the adulterers to “grow in the life of grace and charity,” and entitling them to benefit from the sacraments (AL, 305)? The “worthy” intentional end (the good of a “higher order”) thus justifies the means by which it is achieved: adultery itself.
Like the magician who misdirects our attention from his right hand to his left, so that he can easily fool us into overlooking what he’s actually doing, AL’s smokescreen of “constructive elements” in the “concrete situation” of adultery misdirects our attention from the gravity of the sin that is actually being committed, making it easier for people to be fooled into committing or accepting it. AL’s uniform reclassification of adultery as merely an “‘irregular’ situation” will help in that regard. So, too, will AL’s implicit downgrading of the sin’s intrinsically evil nature to the “premoral” level. After all, how could the merely “physical” (or “premoral”) act of adultery result in any significant harm or personal culpability when the adulterers “feel” that their refraining from it would only lead them to “fall into new sins”? In other words, they have the “feeling in conscience” that they are doing proportionally more good and less evil by disobeying rather than by obeying the divine precept forbidding adultery.
A disturbing number of Church prelates have been performing that same revisionist trick relative to other issues, homosexual “unions” being a favorite. They have reclassified sodomitic relationships as “loving commitments” or the like. These relationships are allegedly characterized by constructive elements such as “fidelity” and “stability.” This implies that those elements are positive “fruits” of the sodomitic relationship as such, and that the “fruits,” in turn, help “consolidate” the relationship. To put it another way, there are “proportionate reasons” justifying sodomitic relationships in such cases. The prelates who have affirmed this in one way or another must consequently also affirm, at least implicitly, that the physical act of sodomy is merely a “premoral” evil whose realization is morally “right,” or “advantageous,” when it effects a greater proportion of “higher order” goods. Since those goods presumably reflect the “worthy” intentional end of the sodomites, who are thus taken to be acting in “good conscience,” there would be no reason why sympathetic prelates could not “discern” Catholic sodomites right up to the Communion rail. And that would be entirely consistent with the wayward logic of AL, which has given a new impetus to such scandalous and sacrilegious abuses.
AL’s Altered State of Conscience. We have already sampled something of AL’s false view of conscience in examining the moral specification of the deliberately willed acts constituting an adulterous relationship. Here, we will expand on the topic. In chapter 8 of the document, Pope Francis speaks at length about the duty of pastors to accompany divorced and civilly remarried Catholics (and Catholic fornicators), so as to help them discern in the internal forum–in conscience–where they stand before God. Discernment, therefore, requires an honest assessment of their “‘irregular’ situation” in the light of what the Gospel of Christ demands (see AL, 300-301). Does this mean that Francis has provided an objective criterion–namely, the demands of the Gospel–for evaluating the morality of that situation? After all, revisionist moral theory is all about the individual person’s subjective assessment of what he deems to be the morally relevant elements involved in his own case.
Francis’s first step toward placing inordinate emphasis on the role of individual conscience is to stress that pastoral discernment must take into account factors that might mitigate a person’s moral culpability for having entered and remained in an adulterous relationship. Citing paragraphs 1735 and 2352 from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, he mentions factors such as ignorance, fear, habit, psychological and social conditions, and so on. It is worth noting that, in quoting from the second of the two paragraphs (which concerns masturbation), the pope omits a rather relevant sentence: “The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of [a valid] marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose.” Adultery (along with every other sexual sin) is therefore excluded–absolutely. Having left that little detail aside, however, the pope concludes that in the process of discernment, “a negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the imputability or culpability of the person” (AL, 302). Why not? Because mitigating factors or circumstances might have affected the person’s knowledge or volition in acting, and it is this, rather than the acts constituting the objectively sinful situation, that determines the actual level of his subjective guilt or innocence.
Since the person might be hamstrung by internal and external conditions presumed to be beyond his immediate control, Francis’s next step is to tell us (in true revisionist, non sequitur fashion) that the individual conscience of the very person who “finds” himself caught up in an adulterous union–of the person who finds it “very difficult to act differently” because of limiting circumstances (AL, 302): this person’s conscience “needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage.” Why is that? Because
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, there we have it. The person recognizes, in conscience, that he is transgressing God’s objective moral precept by living in an adulterous union. Nevertheless, that person alone, according to AL (and to Catholic moral revisionists), is the one most competent to identify and evaluate all the morally relevant factors and limitations at work in this “complex” situation. Having undertaken and completed that task, the person is then able to discern, confidently and in good conscience, that he is acting as generously as possible under the circumstances, and that God Himself is right on board with that less-than-ideal response. Indeed, it seems that God is the one who has dispensed him from the moral obligation to observe the divine precept, overwhelmed, as He must be, by the convoluted nature of the case.
To summarize, AL ascribes to God both a congruity of will with certain “sincere” Catholics as to their persistence in grave sin, and a casual disregard for that Commandment of His against which they are sinning. In a word, the climax of AL’s moral revisionism is blasphemy. As understood in the strictly theological sense, another word also applies: scandal. We would therefore do well to exercise our moral and religious obligation to reject this patent falsehood unconditionally, assenting instead to the truth of a statement of which God Himself is the principal Author: “The eyes of the Lord are on those who fear Him, and He knows every deed of man. He has not commanded anyone to be ungodly, and He has not given anyone permission to sin” (Sir 15:19-20).
The foregoing biblical citation tells us plainly that conscience has no authority whatsoever to authorize sin–especially when the sin in question has been proscribed explicitly, absolutely, and authoritatively by God Himself, as something contrary to both our temporal and our eternal good. The authority of conscience resides, rather, in its ability to recognize, rationally and objectively, the truth of the absolute goodness of the moral law that God has revealed, to judge human action accordingly, and to apply that judgment in deciding how best to integrate truly good (that is, objectively moral) action into the “concrete situation” that we face here and now. Our dignity as human beings derives from our freedom, under grace, to live by the correct judgments of conscience, in whose inner sanctuary God confirms, personally, the truth of the moral good taught publicly by Christ and handed down to us by the Apostles. In judging rightly, therefore, conscience testifies to the absolute goodness and universality of God’s commands, to the objective truth of God’s revelation, and to the supreme authority of God as the Author of the revealed moral law.
Historicism in AL. The hints of revisionist historicism in AL become quite explicit when we listen to Francis’s point man on the document, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn. Our antennae should start going up when Schönborn distinguishes between “the continuity of the doctrinal principles and the discontinuity of perspectives or of historically conditioned expressions.” If either our perspectives on, or our ways of expressing, doctrinal principles are discontinuous with their original meaning, then we have no longer retained that meaning. Our understanding of that slice of reality will therefore be substantially different from that of the people who have gone before us, effectively severing any real continuity between past and present. Given this obvious fact, the Cardinal’s statement comes across as somewhat sophistic.
Schönborn reinforces the message of discontinuity by likening AL to his take on Gaudium et Spes, which he claims “presents doctrinal principles and reflections on human beings today that are in a continuous evolution. There is a profound openness to accept reality.” To be clear, the term “evolution”–as we have been conditioned to understand it, and as Schönborn intends it here–has little to do with the term “development” as a continuous or an organic process of growth and maturation, or as a seamless unfolding of meaning. Rather, we understand and use “evolution” commonly, almost reflexively, in the sense of “substantial change”–that is, of discontinuity with what went before. So, Schönborn seems to be suggesting that “reality,” meaning the historico-cultural contingencies produced by, experienced by, and affecting the people of a particular epoch, has become the criterion by which we are to understand both Church doctrine and Christian anthropology. The upshot? Human life is constantly evolving, and so the formulation of the Church’s doctrines, moral laws, and pastoral disciplines must evolve with it.
So, how is all that connected with AL? According to Schönborn, the complexity of family situations today is so unprecedented that the way a person is living–his objective situation–doesn’t tell us as much as it once did about his relation to God and the Church. As never before, his praxis “is conditioned both personally and by the community.” Schönborn seems to mean that internal (e.g., psychological) and external (e.g., historico-cultural and societal) factors influence, alter, and mitigate responsibility for human moral conduct. This evolution of circumstances means that the Church’s understanding of “objective situations of sin,” particularly as it bears on “new unions,” must also evolve, as the Church attunes herself to how people perceive or experience what they are doing. “And this implicitly entails a homogeneous evolution in the understanding and in the expression of the doctrine.”
In short, the Church has to get with the times. And so, despite episcopal assurances that Church teaching has not changed and will not change with the promulgation of AL, we will surely be hearing more explicitly, before long, that the Church’s doctrinal tradition on marriage (especially regarding marital indissolubility), along with the canonical and disciplinary laws connected with it, have little, if any, relevance today. Human beings have evolved beyond all that. They should no longer be held to a standard whose time has passed, as evidenced by the difficulty that people have living it out in today’s situation. Of course, if that is true in the domain of marriage, then we can expect that Church teaching will have to evolve, sooner or later, in every other area as well.
In this essay, we have reviewed some of the main principles underlying Catholic moral revisionism, so as to show thereby how Pope Francis’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, utilizes those same principles to arrive at a false understanding both of conscience and of the moral evaluation of the human act. We saw how the pope has downgraded the Sixth Commandment from moral absolute to general principle, allowing him to justify acts of adultery (“new unions”) in some cases, albeit subtly. This is not to say that the pope upholds no moral absolutes at all when it suits him. But he cannot credibly do so while basing himself on revisionist moral principles. Since he has absolutized the principle that “general rules” cannot apply to every concrete situation, he cannot logically exclude any of the Commandments from being subordinated to it.
By relativizing the scope of the Sixth Commandment and so, too, of the sacramental discipline that bears an intrinsic relation to it, Pope Francis is in a position to claim that there are, in some cases, proportionate reasons for disobeying God’s law and for admitting adulterers (and, by extension, fornicators or any other person committing grave sin) to the sacraments. Like Catholic moral revisionists, the pope does not provide any clearly defined method of weighing those reasons objectively, for no such method is possible. He simply appeals to a subjective, rather murky process of “discernment,” especially insofar as discernment seeks to identify “mitigating factors” and “constructive elements” (proportionate reasons) that might justify a person’s persistence in grave sin, while exculpating the sinner.
Having quietly employed the revisionist theory of proportionalism in AL, Francis discourages us from giving due attention to the actual sin that a person is committing, while urging us to focus almost exclusively on the person’s intention in committing it. The pope’s revisionist focus on personal intention leads him, inevitably, toward absolutizing and unduly subjectivizing conscience in moral decision-making, despite his apparent qualifications to the contrary (e.g., see AL, 300, 307-308). Indeed, he suggests that the individual conscience might sometimes require someone to disobey God’s commands, because the person “feels” therein that he would otherwise commit greater sins. Going even further, the pope suggests that God Himself sometimes dispenses a person, in conscience, from the moral obligation to observe His commands. Of course, suggestions such as these fly in the face of what God has actually revealed about His immutable moral law and about Himself.
In effect, therefore, what Pope Francis is really doing is affirming the authority of conscience to dispense itself (ostensibly only in some concrete situations) from its moral obligation to decide on an action rationally, in accordance with both naturally knowable and revealed moral truth. But then it would seem to follow that conscience could just as well dispense itself also from the need to engage in any kind of meaningful “discernment”; however, since it is rarely possible for anyone to deform his own conscience completely, the person will almost invariably seek to acquit himself therein of serious wrongdoing by discerning proportionate reasons for his rebellion against God. If nothing else, AL unwittingly testifies to that fact.
By turning to Cardinal Christoph Schönborn’s remarks on AL, we were able to see more clearly how the document’s revisionist position is inherently historicist. Because conditions today are alleged to have put people into a situation radically different from the way things used to be, they can no longer understand or accept the Church’s traditional doctrine and practices. Schönborn tells us, therefore, that the Church must newly reflect on what she means by expressions such as “objective situations of sin,” so that she can reformulate her doctrine and modify her sacramental discipline according to her renewed understanding. While that sounds a whole lot like he is telling us that the Church must accommodate herself to the “evolving” ways of the world (which has rejected the Son of God, since “men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” [Jn 3:19]), he and like-minded Church princes assure us that they are not advocating a change in the Church’s doctrine, which, they insist, cannot be changed.
Frankly, their assurances are not worth much. AL’s incoherent position, together with the equally incoherent, tendentious, and meretricious attempts by some bishops (and others) to defend it, enlarge on it, prop it up, or explain it away, leads us to the only credible conclusion possible: The unconditional demands of God’s moral law, known objectively by right reason and divine revelation, are being nullified by the foolishness of men. I will reserve further comment on the enormous implications of AL’s revisionism, as regards both the false teaching that flows from it and the churchmen who espouse it, for a follow-up essay.
 Because of the amount of space devoted to addressing the two questions in a fairly thorough (if somewhat simplified) way, the essay will presume knowledge of authentic Church teaching for the most part. More detailed commentary on the Church’s official teaching is reserved for the notes. See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1749-1761 and 1776-1802, for a helpful summary of two key issues discussed in the essay: the morality of human acts, and moral conscience.
 While some revisionists might not interest themselves explicitly with the immediate or long-range consequences of an act, their weighing of different situational factors against each other necessarily implies some consideration of consequences.
 The other terms are “nonmoral,” “ontic,” and “material.”
 See the summary of this position in Veritatis Splendor, 75. Please note that while the basic principles of Catholic moral revisionism being presented here are common among revisionists, these theorists differ among themselves in their analyses of the moral act and in the conclusions that they subsequently reach. For that reason, some of the more specific examples of revisionist thinking given in the overview do not necessarily represent the opinion of every revisionist. Nevertheless, the examples are consistent with revisionist principles, and they do represent conclusions that some revisionists have reached on the basis of them.
 See Humanae Vitae, 14, which condemns this position. The revisionist view perverts the principle of final causality, which states that the final end is first in the order of intention but last (or more remote) in the order of execution. Revisionists insist that the actor’s final, intentional end for a whole series of acts is identical with his proximate intention for the particular acts that he performs therein as the means to the final end. But they ignore the fact that some of the acts that they regard, inexplicably, as constitutive of the series cannot be ordered to the end for the sake of which the series was initiated because they are so radically opposed to it. It follows that those acts cannot possibly be informed by the same intentional finality, whether explicitly or by an implicit but subconscious desire for it. Revisionists argue speciously, therefore, in saying that I intend result “A” in consciously doing “Z,” its intentional opposite. On the contrary, the actor is doing precisely what revisionists pretend to disapprove of: he is (or at least purports to be) superimposing an ulterior motive onto the particular acts that he has deliberately willed to perform, as if to change thereby their objective character and make them something other than they actually are. Whether the subjective motivation is sincere, feigned, or a product of self-deception, it supplies the actor with a needed reason–a rationalization–for doing the evil deed that he has willed to carry out. But neither ulterior motives nor secondary intentions can transform an inherently evil act into a good one.
 Some revisionists might be more definite about defending specific moral absolutes, such as the precept against murdering any innocent human being, from conception to natural death. But they cannot credibly ground their position on their own, revisionist principles, which always leave open the possibility that proportionate reasons justifying the proscribed action might arise at some point. In consequence, revisionist attempts to defend the existence of one or more exceptionless moral norms come across as somewhat gratuitous. A more common “absolute” among revisionists is that one ought never to lead another person into sin. But then they go on to lead others into sin by denying that an action proscribed absolutely by both natural and divine law is, in fact, a sin in some circumstances.
 The proportionality principle itself originated as a revisionist interpretation of the principle of double effect. But the question here is, how can one possibly validate revisionist-style proportionalism objectively and authoritatively? It is wholly oriented toward permitting one to do evil, that good might come of it. Sacred Scripture and Catholic Tradition have unequivocally condemned that principle.
 While Catholic moral theorists massage the human ego into thinking that it has the maturity and the freedom to decide on its own authority what is morally good and what is morally evil, they are really just massaging their own ego thereby, telling us, whether implicitly or explicitly: “Listen to me! As the real authority on moral matters, I’m right. The Church’s moral teaching is wrong and will have to change according to my way of thinking!”
 Of course, it follows that if one’s beliefs, experiences, and way of life don’t reflect the morality in vogue, then one must be a Neanderthal or, at best, excessively “rigid.”
 Apropos of AL’s claim that some people might not understand the values inherent in the precept against adultery (see AL, 300-301), Thomas mentions in the same article that one reason why a general principle might fail to apply (or, more accurately, fail to be applied) in a particular case is because, in some people, human reason “is perverted by passion, or evil habit, or an evil disposition of nature.” So, it is not that the particular details of the situation–namely, personal enslavement to passion or to evil–have nullified the general principle, but rather that its truth could not be recognized because of a perversion of right reason. Nevertheless, the pope seems to want the Church to accommodate herself to that perversion. For example, in AL, 301 (n. 339), he appeals to John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio, 33, to buttress his claim that a person might have “great difficulty” understanding the values inherent in the precept against adultery. But Familiaris Consortio is speaking there about contraception. Regardless, Francis uses that passage to help justify his decision to compromise the Church’s traditional sacramental discipline, so as to accommodate some Catholic adulterers. When it comes to the grave sin of adultery, however, right reason cannot fail to grasp the meaning of the divine precept, which intends to uphold the values pertaining to the good of marriage. Even young children grasp those values intuitively, based on their experience of family life–whether good or bad. In consequence, any adult who really does not understand, for any reason, the positive values that the precept implicitly affirms would be incapable of contracting marriage at all.
 E.g., ST I-II, 100, 8. See also II-II, 33, 2. For a refutation of arguments interpreting Thomas to the contrary, see Patrick Lee, “Permanence of the Ten Commandments: St. Thomas and His Modern Commentators,” Theological Studies 42 (1981): 422-43.
 Granted, John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation on the family, Familiaris Consortio (1981), uses the same language. But unlike AL, it does not use it as a means of easing into false doctrinal and pastoral conclusions.
 This position violates the logical principle of noncontradiction: How can one’s “constructive” actions realize in any way the “ideal” of marriage when one is flagrantly violating the constitutional basis and the exclusive rights of marriage at one and the same time by those very actions?
 Note that Pope Francis uses a faulty translation of the conciliar text, where “the good of children” indicates only a concern about how well the children are being provided for. That way, AL can, like some adulterers, use the children as a handy excuse: their divorced parent civilly “remarried,” and thus began to commit adultery, for their sake. The actual text of the Council, however, understands “the good of children” as referring also to procreation, just as the Church has always intended. Abstaining from marital intimacy, therefore, jeopardizes the good of bringing new children into being. That Francis should use an “adulterated” version of the text is actually surprising in this case, since he regards the procreation and care of children as “constructive” and “consolidating” elements of adulterous (and, implicitly, of de facto) unions.
 Again, I grant that Familiaris Consortio also uses this language; nevertheless, it arrives at a proper moral judgment about those situations based on the objective gravity of the sin, the person’s persistence in committing it, and the scandal that it causes to the faithful.
 The Church teaches that the decision itself to commit a gravely sinful act already indicates a disordered will, precisely because the person cannot avoid willing, as an end, the gravely sinful, proximate purpose of the act in willing it–e.g., to establish a sexual relationship with someone who is not one’s spouse, and thus to commit all the injustice that such an act inherently entails (see Veritatis Splendor, 78, 80-81). Personal intentions or ulterior motives cannot change the character of the act nor, therefore, can they change its essentially evil content. The objective dynamics of the act–which extend beyond the individual to violate the rights and dignity (and hence the true good) of others, as well as the rights of God and the honor due Him–remain the same, regardless of any allegedly good intentions and extenuating circumstances involved. What is more, the intrinsically evil act always undermines reflexively the moral and spiritual state of the person who commits it knowingly and willingly, just as the truly virtuous act has the opposite effect in the properly disposed actor (see Veritatis Splendor, 71).
 This position is redolent of “fundamental option” theories claiming that a person’s decision to live a life contrary to God’s commands–especially given his limiting circumstances–does not necessarily affect the “fundamental freedom” by which he remains oriented toward God in charity. On just such a basis, AL tells us that some Catholic adulterers continue to enjoy the life of grace in the soul, and can therefore grow in grace and charity with the help of the sacraments. (For the refutation of this position, see Veritatis Splendor, 65, 68.) Even if a person has committed a gravely immoral act under conditions that diminish significantly his personal culpability and the objective seriousness of the act, the Church teaches that the presence of mitigating factors never fully neutralizes the act’s inherently destructive effects relative to himself and others, nor, consequently, does it ever render such an act capable of leading him to God (e.g., Veritatis Splendor, 51-52, 63, 80-82). So, relative to the act itself, the person cannot grow in the life of grace and charity. On the contrary, his persistence in the sinful situation threatens to destroy that life, insofar as it still exists in him at all. For these reasons, the Church had never, prior to Francis, minimized the importance of attending to the type of act actually being committed. Without exception, violations of God’s Commandments involve acts that are intrinsically evil by their very nature. They invariably disrupt the moral order established by God, causing disorder in every other sphere to which man bears a relation.
 If either the means or the ends of an act are immoral, then the act itself is immoral. Even if it were true that the adulterous couple sought only the “constructive” elements of their relationship as their intentional end (i.e., as their personal motive, or purpose, in choosing adultery as the “means” by which to achieve their “constructive” goals), their deliberate end (i.e., that toward which their will is directed as something good or desirable) is the adultery itself, the rationally chosen object of their will. The intentional end explains why someone has deliberately chosen to do something. The deliberate end explains what he has deliberately chosen to do. The object of the act, therefore, is necessarily his proximate end; consequently, insofar as choosing it either conforms to or contravenes right reason and hence the true good of the person, the object is also that which primarily, fundamentally, and decisively specifies the act as either morally good or morally evil. That is why it causes moral goodness or evil in the will of the person who chooses it. The choice for adultery always entails a disorder of the will. Revisionists routinely ignore the distinction between the intentional end (which is subjective) and the deliberate end (which is objective, in its real relation to the rational order of truth), so that they can regard a deliberately willed, intrinsically evil act such as adultery as merely a “premoral,” or “physical,” evil having no personal or formal content apart from the person’s intention in committing it within a given set of concrete circumstances. See Veritatis Splendor, 78-79.
 The Church has long recognized that subjective and circumstantial factors can in some cases mitigate or even eliminate the personal culpability of someone who acts in a gravely sinful way. She has also made it clear that pastors must take those factors into account when trying to judge a person’s moral responsibility, so as to decide on a fitting pastoral response. To that extent, AL is saying nothing new. Unlike AL, however, the Church has never claimed, falsely, that a person remains in a state of sanctifying grace by committing an objectively serious sin in which he has sufficient knowledge of what he is doing, and in which he has consented with sufficient freedom to do it– regardless of the alleged presence of mitigating factors. And in the examples he gives of “constructive” adultery or fornication, Pope Francis does imply, in various ways, that the subject has sufficient knowledge of what he is doing and that he has given sufficient consent in doing it. The pope claims, for example, that some adulterers are conscious of the “irregularity” of their union, and yet they initiate or abide in it for the “good” of their children (see AL, 298). He also claims that the decision to fornicate (or to marry civilly) is often motivated by cultural or contingent situations (e.g., expense, lack of job security), rather than by a failure to appreciate sacramental union (see AL, 294). So, for all his talk about mitigating factors or the “law of gradualness” (AL, 295), the pope’s own examples describe cases of deliberate mortal sin, which render that talk superfluous.
 Consider, for example, this passage in AL, 32, which quotes from Matrimonio y familia (Spanish Bishops’ Conference, 1979): “Neither today’s society nor that to which we are progressing allow[s] an uncritical survival of older forms and models.” When we read this text and others in the light of Cardinal Schönborn’s remarks on AL, we have good reason to think that they smack of a relativizing historicism.
 This quotation and the others attributed to Schönborn in this section are taken from his interview with Antonio Sparado, S.J. (July 21, 2016), which appeared in the August 15, 2016 issue of America Magazine. See www.americamagazine.org/issue/demands-love.
 On the contrary, see Veritatis Splendor, 53. Catholic moral revisionists regard changes in human moral life, based on changing historico-cultural conditions and understandings, as signs that concrete human nature itself is evolving. This perspective has huge implications. For example, if the eternal Son of God effected human redemption united hypostatically to a human nature somehow different from our contemporary, “evolving” version, then He has not redeemed us. Needless to say, Cardinal Schönborn and the revisionists have something more expedient in mind when they invoke the evolutionary view of history. If God has not established man permanently in his mode of being, or nature, then neither has He established any permanent norms of acting for him. For the action characteristic of any type of being depends on the type of being it is (operari sequitur esse), so as to direct it to its proper end and thus perfect it. If the being changes, then the actions perfective of it will also change. Thus, evolutionism allows one to claim that the moral norms of acting enshrined in the Ten Commandments represent only a provisional, historically conditioned means to human fulfillment, subject to revision as man “evolves” to a higher, more enlightened level of being. While revisionists have tried to ascribe a transcendent or a metaphysical permanence to man in his natural being, they have failed to ground it in anything real, having contrived a false dichotomy between human nature as concrete and as transcendent. The truth is, the Commandments bear permanently not only on man’s existence in the natural order but also, and in that way, on his existential relation to the supernatural order: “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments” (1 Jn 5:3; see Mt 19:17). It follows, then, that God has, indeed, established man permanently in his specifically human mode of being.
 “Homogeneous evolution” is really a contradiction in terms. A genuine evolution in the Church’s doctrine, based on her incorporating the experiences of people living gravely sinful lives into her understanding, would mean only one thing: she has forsaken Christ for the fleeting embrace of novelty. In a word, it would mean that she has committed adultery.
 Last June, he defended the absolute character of the Fifth Commandment so as to reject absolutely the legitimacy of legal recourse to the death penalty. In doing so, he asserted an unqualified, and hence a highly questionable, moral equivalence between the innocent and the guilty. This past February, on the other hand, the pope labeled as cowardly those Christians who obey all the Commandments, a practice that he claims keeps them from taking risks and moving forward. On account of that “cowardliness,” those who obey God’s Commandments are, according to Francis, guilty of sin. See www.lifesitenews.com/mobile/news/watch-pope-accuses-his-critics-of-cowardliness-for-overfocus-on-following-1
 Francis’s position implies that in the depths of some consciences, God can sanction violations of the moral law that He has both revealed to us and commanded us to observe unfailingly with the grace that He offers us in Christ. It implies, therefore, that God can contradict Himself. That would put God’s promise of salvation in Christ on very shaky ground. Worse still, a self-contradictory “God” would not even qualify as God, and so we would have no choice but to seek a replacement, or to abandon theism for atheism.
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